JACKSON, Tenn. — So here I stood at the very spot, marked by a plaque on the lawn of the Madison County Courthouse, where an angry Davy Crockett, having just lost his bid for re-election to Congress in 1835, announced his future intentions.
“You can go to hell, but I am going to Texas.”
Texas did not work out so well for Davy. He and his Tennessee Mounted Volunteers arrived at a crumbling mission called the Alamo at San Antonio de Béxar in early February 1836 in the midst of a war with Mexico. They would not ride out.
The Alamo would be avenged. Sam Houston and his motley rebel army would defeat the Mexican army of General Antonio López de Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836. Five months later, Houston, a former governor of Tennessee, was elected the first president of the Republic of Texas.
The Link of History
So Texas and Tennessee are inextricably linked by their history. This past week, I had the pleasure of having dinner with a group of economic developers that included three natives of Alamo, Tenn., the county seat of, you guessed it, Crockett County.
I was in West Tennessee at the invitation of the Jackson Regional Partnership, which represents a nine-county region, which includes Crockett County. The other counties are Madison, Henderson, Carroll, Gibson, Haywood, Hardeman, Chester and McNairy.
At the bequest of my host, I gave a speech/presentation at the Jackson Chamber – A Consultant’s View: How Communities Compete in a Site Selection Project – with a degree of gusto that left no one asleep in my audience. (The juggling of cats always helps.)
But I also stayed an extra day and a half to tour the region, as I can learn only so much about a place by staring at a computer screen. Whenever possible, I like to put my boots on the ground to get a better understanding. Familiarization tours generally are a good thing.
A Losing Proposition
Even if I am not charged with wowing an audience, I do require compensation for my time. While I was in Tennessee, I received a curious email from an economic development organization representing a major market that has professional sports teams. They offered me all of a $500 stipend to come for a familiarization tour.
Now that amount would probably not cover my air fare, much less hotel accommodations, meals, and compensate me for three days out of my schedule. Indeed, I would lose money if I accepted that offer.
Of course, I am not in business to lose money, even if I do offer my consulting services gratis on occasion. So I wrote back to this big city economic development group. I thanked them for the invitation, and explained why I could not accept their terms. I have yet to receive a reply. Maybe they will come to their senses.
Now I will admit to having a certain fondness for Tennessee. My mother’s side of my family is from there, and I spent some childhood years in Chattanooga. But in my role as a site selection consultant, my personal feelings do not much matter.
To serve a corporate client well, I cannot allow for personal biases, either pro or con, to enter the picture as millions of dollars are at stake. No, serious qualitative and quantitative analysis is what is needed for what will constitute a phased culling process. At least, that is how site selection process should work.
Based on what I saw and heard during my visit to Jackson and the surrounding region, I do have some initial impressions on strengths and weaknesses. Mind you, they are not as deep or sticking as they would be if I were engaged to do an in-depth analysis. Still, my trip to West Tennessee gave me a better idea of what this place is about, which is what both my hosts and I wanted.
In a land where fried food and sweet tea is served with a loving touch – I indulged in barbecue at lunch and fried catfish that evening – it was a welcomed surprise to learn that the Jackson Chamber was taking this concept of wellness seriously.
It only makes sense as healthier employees make for lower costs, so there is a bottom line aspect here for business. (More and more, watch for companies to not hire smokers.)
Chamber President Kyle Spurgeon understood that the area’s health conditions could be directly tied in to its economic competitiveness when he saw the 2010 County Health Rankings.
“When a company is evaluating Jackson as a prospective location, they look at key location criteria — and wellness outcomes are part of that location criteria search. All other things being equal, a healthier community stands a better shot at getting a project than one that’s unhealthy.”
So I was most impressed with West Tennessee Healthcare Sportsplex with its 17 baseball and softball fields sitting on a 126-acre tract that includes retail. At times, 100 teams are onsite and they come from around the nation, giving local tourism a boost. The Sportsplex sits adjacent to the Ballpark at Jackson where I watched the Jackson Generals prevail over the Huntsville Stars.
The next morning, I toured the LIFT (Living in a Fit Tennessee) Wellness Center, a newly-built, LEED-certified, 84,000-square-foot medical fitness center in downtown Jackson. The LIFT features just about everything you can imagine in turning your moonpie body into something relatively healthy and fit.
The LIFT, which offers an on-site primary care clinic, is the brainchild of the West Tennessee Healthcare, the 10th largest non-profit healthcare system in the United States. Trust me, this is not your daddy’s gym.
The LIFT also serves as the centerpiece to the 17-acre Jackson Walk healthy community, a new development that includes single-family homes, 150 apartments, retail and borders the West Tennessee Farmers’ Market.
All this is happening downtown, which should be transformational in turning the downtown into a more vibrant place. Jackson’s downtown, like most downtowns, is too quiet and too empty at night and on weekends. But Jackson Walk should change that as it has a cool factor written all over it.
James Ross started his healthcare career as an EMT riding in the back of an ambulance. Today, he is the vice president and chief operating officer of West Tennessee Healthcare. I liken that to a private rising through the ranks to become a general.
Mr. Ross gave me a most excellent tour Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, and I can tell you that if I were sick, I would not hesitate going there. This hospital, which turns away no one, prides itself on keeping costs low and bills affordable. Texas hospitals could learn a thing or two from West Tennessee Healthcare.
Should there ever be a zombie outbreak, this is where I would want to hole up.
Owned and operated by the Jackson Energy Authority, “the bunker” is built into a hillside with three feet of dirt on its roof. It came to be in response to a 1999 tornado and was completed and in use when an F-4 tornado devastated downtown Jackson in May 2003, killing eight people. This is a high-tech command and control center for all JEA utility infrastructure, which includes electric, natural gas, water, waste water and telecommunications.
The degree of utility robust and redundancy as offered by JEA was impressive, particularly in the area of broadband. JEA offers a 100 percent fiber optic network providing high-speed internet, cable television, and local and long distance telephone services
“While we have not done a good job of promoting our system’s value and strengths outside Jackson, we have the same system and capabilities of the system in Chattanooga which promotes itself as ‘gig city’ and having ‘the fastest system in the country’,” said John Nanney, JEA’s vice president of economic and industrial development. “In fact, Chattanooga visited Jackson and modeled their system after ours.”
Jackson should be on a good footing to compete for a data center, as the community is one of the 20 designated data center sites in the seven-state service territory of the Tennessee Valley Authority. I will remember the 423-acre Tiger Jones Technology Park, and not only because I watched a flock of turkeys remain on the roadway and run at least 100 yards ahead of our slowly moving vehicle.
Again 100 percent fiber optic gigabit ethernet is available with a bandwidth capacity of up to 500 Mbps to a single customer. The site is remote and private, good for purposes of security and is serviced by underground power lines and a substation capacity of 50,000 kVA. This has data center written all over it.
Space does not permit me to go into much more detail about my visit. I found it intriguing to say the least that Bethel University in Carroll County would actually offer scholarships in bass fishing. I am not making this up. You know, if I could’ve, maybe I would’ve.
Like all places, challenges exist. Public education is not where it should be in Jackson and much of the region, although the communities are now making positive strides. I heard this firsthand behind closed doors from HR managers representing local manufacturers. They are, in fact, pleased with the direction that things are going.
Dr. Verna Ruffin, newly hired to be the superintendent of the Jackson-Madison County School System, approached me after my speech to ask about how to make better inroads in communicating with local manufacturers and employers. Now that is promising.
Promising is how I would describe Jackson and West Tennessee. Manufacturing, with 10 automotive suppliers, is strong here for good reason as building blocks are in place. And I met a group of young Turk entrepreneurs, mostly IT types, who march to a different beat. They portend the future for Jackson and I am glad they are there.
Kyle Spurgeon summed up important aspects as to what I am looking for on any given project – “location, workforce and the ability to close the deal.”
I could see having future dealings here given the needs of a client. A promising place indeed.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas.
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