TVA: Recreation one aspect of development picture

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   Could Carter County hitch it's star to Watauga Lake and come up with added revenue? You never know until you ask.
   It's not unheard of, according to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).
   The multi-purpose Watauga Reservoir, built by TVA, forms a long, slender body of water and has a shoreline of approximately 109 miles. Watauga Dam, a 900-foot-long, 318-foot-high earth- and rock-filled dam, is the tallest earthen dam in the TVA system. A scenic treasure in its own right.
   Gil Francis, TVA media relations, says TVA lakes are an attraction for bass fishermen and other water enthusiasts, and not just for local residents.
   "For example, in Chattanooga at Chickamauga Dam, it's one of the most heavily used recreation areas anywhere. They have a nice swimming beach and in addition to that, there's boating and fishing and all that kind of stuff. The lakes do lend themselves. There is a recreation component to them," Francis said.
   To appreciate the value of the various attractions, they must be considered individually, according to Francis. They each serve a different purpose.
   The Ocoee River was purchased specifically for power generation. However, because of a series of events, it's now allocated for whitewater rafting.
   "However, when that water is released for whitewater rafting, Congress reimburses TVA for the lost power generation. So anytime somebody rafts -- a commercial rafter -- I think it's like $2 a head that they charge and that money is being returned to the U.S. Treasury," Francis said.
   Most of the land surrounding Watauga Lake is either owned by TVA or the Forest Service, which prohibits private development of hotels, restaurants, or other tourist attractions.
   But land swaps are not unheard of.
   "At Tellico, where the Tellico Dam is, there's some property that's owned by TVA and there's a developer who wants to build a project called Rarity Bay," Francis said. "He owns a bunch of acreage anyway, but I think what he wants to do is swap some land that he owns with some land that TVA owns, that's more adjacent to where he wants to develop. That's being looked at. There's a public meeting coming up in about two weeks."
   Francis said TVA has requests from time to time to look at how land is used. "Depending on what it is, you'd have to do either an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement to determine what the impacts would be. There's only so much public land, and once it's gone, it's gone. So the idea is to preserve the land for the greater public good."
   But if TVA does agree to a land swap, its philosophy is that it would like to gain at least an equal amount or more in doing that, Francis said.
   In business and job development, a broad range of opportunity must be looked at, and recreational development might be one aspect of a larger picture, according to Francis. "But you also have to admit that it would be seasonal. You've got prime time June through July, maybe a little bit of August, because school starts so early around here.
   "Looking at any natural feature that might lend itself to recreation might be one of them, but I think it would be just part of a bigger solution," he said.
   To develop a restaurant (or a marina) on Watauga Lake, the interested party must obtain a 26A permit from TVA and the Corps of Engineers. "Two of the things they look at is: No. 1, are you in the floodplain? and No. 2, would you cause a navigation hazard? You just can't put a restaurant anywhere," Francis said.
   "Every place is unique. What may work in one place may not work at another. You have to look at each location and what the possibilities are."
   There are various things that TVA's Economic Development staff will do to help communities attract and retain business and industry. Tommy Olterman, Economic Development specialist for TVA in Johnson City, said TVA has a $100 million revolving loan fund it uses to help communities. The only eligibility requirement is that the applicant be a TVA power user.
   "We use it on equipment loans to help companies expand, we use it in various and sundry ways to assist them in their economic development efforts," Olterman says.
   He stays in close contact with Phil Isaacs and Brent Dugger at Elizabethton Electric System, Economic Development Director Haynes Elliott, and County Executive Dale Fair.
   "I know this sounds hard to believe when you're losing jobs, but, honest to goodness, we're doing everything we can to see that we can provide somebody to come in on that Alcoa building and, hopefully, we can go to the table with one pitch to Inland and maybe they would reconsider."
   TVA markets Carter County buildings worldwide through its "Site Selector" program using paid professional consultants stationed throughout Canada and Europe. "We have people that we have on retainer that are wanting to expand to the United States. We market throughout the United States to make sure that we're attracting every industry that we can to bring them to the Valley, and give every local community an equal-opportunity shot once they meet the criteria," Olterman said.
   "We have pictures of your available buildings right now on Site Selector. If somebody wants to come on our Web page, through Site Selector they can go into a specific building in Elizabethton, Tenn. Say it's the Alcoa building: They can go in there and look at the office space, the manufacturing floor space, we have an aerial view where they can look at the entire property boundaries."
   Olterman said that from TVA's perspective, sometimes it's better to recruit regionally, rather than locally. "You can show them you have an SMA (Statistical Metropolitan Area) of over half-a-million people, rather than a community with 22,000 people, and you get all of the amenities," such as roads, infrastructure, airports, hotels, restaurants and scenic beauty.
   In the last eight years, Olterman has produced almost $30 million in TVA loan money. "Fortunately, we don't have a bad loan. Of course, I'm knocking on my table as I say this, but we are in a risk-taking business. Eighty-five percent of the loans that I've had, have come from existing industries that have expanded," he said.