Erwin, Unicoi, county leaders join together to prepare industrial sites


BY Dr. Bridget Jones
jones-bridget consulting group

Unicoi County is located along the North Carolina border in the Unaka Mountain region that is known for having the highest and most rugged terrain in Tennessee. The physical geography of this portion of eastern Tennessee has shaped the way people have traversed and used the land for centuries.
Those geographic barriers are still at work today, but Unicoi County is now served by eight exits along Interstate 26 and most directly tied to Johnson City and, to a lesser degree, by I-81 and I-40 to Kingsport, Bristol, and Asheville, N.C.
Mountain ridges and peaks that are heavily forested and deeply carved by precipitous stream valleys comprise the county’s topography. Unicoi County is dominated by a valley feature that starts at Johnson City and extends 18 miles to the base of the mountains south of Erwin. Economic activity is largely confined to this valley and it impacts the availability of industrial properties for manufacturing development.
In 2015, Unicoi County and the region were devastated by the closure of the CSX switchyard operations in Erwin and the loss of 300+ high-paying jobs; the rail industry had been present in the county since 1880. The economy suffered a second blow with the closing of Regal/Morrill Motors in 2016 that brought the loss of an additional 111 manufacturing jobs in the county.
To counteract the losses, the county’s economic development leaders requested assistance from TNECD and TVA to develop industrial properties for new manufacturing investments.
This action was critical for the county and region in replacing the lost jobs and wages, yet finding suitable industrial sites would be a formidable challenge.

In 2016, Unicoi County was selected for participation in the Select Tennessee Property Evaluation Program (PEP). The funding brought Austin Consulting site selection experts into the county to work with local leaders to prepare their PEP report with two ideas in mind. First, the report was prepared as a general statement about the current suitability of properties within the county for attracting job-creating investments.
Secondly, PEP findings and recommendations were presented to offer a roadmap for the creation of a stronger, diversified future economy by outlining next steps for the investigated properties that better align Unicoi County with investment opportunities.
The Unicoi County PEP process focused on seven properties that county leaders identified.
In the spring of 2016, Austin consultants completed an evaluation of the properties. In July of that year, Austin and TNECD representatives completed their PEP visit to the county and field investigations for each site.
During their time in the community, Austin also evaluated manufacturing sectors that were a fit for the county and region and reviewed environmental conditions of each property.
Additionally during the visit, meetings were held with local officials, economic development representatives, utility providers, community planning and zoning representatives, and other local leaders important to the economic development process. This added benefit of PEP provided local economic development leaders the opportunity to experience a simulated site selection visit to learn about site selection processes.
PEP findings and recommendations provided county leaders with insights into Unicoi County’s portfolio of real estate assets and associated economic development opportunities. It also provided important information about potential property issues and shortcomings that needed to be addressed to prepare existing properties for future investment.

Unicoi County leaders took immediate action to redevelop the first recommended property. The strategy was to clear and raze a former industrial site and repurpose it into a new, marketable site, the Second Street Industrial Site.
The building and site had been purchased by the city of Erwin in 2013 through Erwin Utilities and USDA Rural Development Economic Development Loan and Grant Program (REDL&G) financing. The property contains a long and narrow 16-acre site sandwiched between arms of the CSX rail yard and has immediate access to I-26.
Experts confirmed that reuse of the facility for ceramics manufacturing was unlikely, and the decision was made to look for alternate uses and raze an assortment of metal buildings and concrete silos that were in poor condition.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) had assisted the community in looking for alternate uses and provided InvestPrep funding in 2017 for demolition of the structures. Austin Consulting recommended that parallel to site clearing, an effort should be undertaken to further develop master plans started by TVA and begin to market the site.
In 2018, TNECD awarded a $500,000 Select Tennessee Site Development Grant (SDG) for the removal of debris and site preparation. County leaders are continuing to follow PEP recommendations including preparation for a 150,000 -square-foot concrete pad for the Second Street site.
The Unicoi County Economic Development Board along with county and city officials have begun due diligence work on a second site identified for site development: the Erwin Public Works Building and property, owned by the city of Erwin.
PEP recommendations for this site include the development of a masterplan that looks at alternatives that could include razing the 60,726-square-foot building, moving the property entrance to avoid neighborhood conflicts or a multi-building industrial park that includes the existing structure and new structures on vacant parcels.
Unicoi County leaders are following other recommendations in the PEP report to invest in economic development marketing, entrepreneur and workforce development programming and quality-of-place and infrastructure investments in order to develop, retain and attract the future workforce that they know will be required.
The county has several additional infrastructure and programming assets in place that support industrial development efforts. Erwin Utilities has installed gigabit fiber service across its electric service area including both industrial locations.
Erwin is currently taking steps to become a certified Tennessee Main Street community after successfully participating in the Tennessee Downtowns program and has obtained ARC Cool and Connected grant funding that is supporting local business development. R.I.S.E. (Rejuvenate, Invest, Support, Energize) Erwin, a group of young professionals committed to the growth of Erwin and Unicoi County, is receiving community support to connect to young professionals.
The town of Unicoi is successfully implementing a local foods strategy through the Mountain Harvest Kitchen Incubator that is creating new businesses and jobs.
Finally, Unicoi County is part of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Partnership for Work Ready Designation supported by the Ayers Foundation, the local Board of Education and regional workforce and higher education partners.