Chamber: This is ‘unprecedented’

COOKEVILLE – It should almost come as no surprise, but the Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber of Commerce is seeing “unprecedented” economic development prospect activity in 2017.

At 14 active prospects, it’s “the most active time we have ever seen,” says Stephen Crook, vice president of economic development, as officials – still relishing over two big wins already this year – continue to target jobs in the IT sector, advanced manufacturing, health sciences and medical devices.

It’s anecdotal – it’s the most Crook has seen in his time there, and the most activity President/CEO George Halford has seen in his 45 years of chamber work, he said – but it’s certainly novel. Other counties within the Highlands Economic Partnership – Jackson, Overton and White – are also seeing “a significant amount of activity as well.” A prospect is considered “active” when talks move beyond the initial RFI phase, or request for information, and when there’s talks on an ongoing basis.

“For a long time, we valued a well-balanced economic climate, but now, we’re getting very targeted to fill employment gaps,” Crook added. “Over the last year or so, we’ve kind of shifted our marketing focuses away from certain sectors and are leaning more toward information technology (IT) and more. We’ve been really fortunate that the market’s responded.”

That was certainly evident in April. Last month alone, Cookeville announced 450 new jobs with two major job announcements. Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a technical, engineering, intelligence and IT provider, said it was opening a new facility in Cookeville and adding 300 paid positions over the next five years. And Aphena Pharma Solutions, a large pharmaceutical company, will be expanding its Cookeville operations to the tune of $7 million. It plans to hire 150 more people over the same time period.

The chamber said conversations with SAIC started last summer; Tennessee Tech “came up big” with necessary office space for the company in the Regions Bank building downtown, which it’s owned since 2014. Crook said the chamber used cluster mapping and other data to pinpoint IT as a sector with “significant growth potential” in the region.

Crook.

“We have been trying to crack into that area for quite awhile now, so getting a company like SAIC primes us for continued growth there,” Crook said. “We’ve got a great pipeline of students coming from (Tennessee Tech), and we’ve got to try and keep them here.”

Aphena’s news, as an existing business, meanwhile, “is yet another example of the success we are seeing in our region,” Halford said in a release.

Crook echoed that sentiment.

“As we’ve seen with Aphena – and (previously) TTI (Floor Care) and Dacco – those (expansions) can be just as competitive as a new company location,” he said. “Aphena could have located their new product line anywhere within their footprint, at a number of facilities.”

Of course, there’s the matter of landing those prospects. But there’s hints of more good news to come.

Since prospects routinely request sites 50 acres and up, there’s a focus on future land development (White, Overton and Putnam, as well as Van Buren and Cumberland, have participated in the state’s Property Evaluation Program (PEP), which aims to improve such inventory). Zach Buckner, vice president of development and communications for the chamber, said they’re also working intensely on workforce development and education. The focus, too, is on quality jobs versus quantity.

Still, an original goal of the Highlands Economic Partnership, to create and retain 1,500 jobs – they’ve blown that out of the water.

“We’ll be nearing 4,000 jobs by the end of this year,” Buckner said. “We’re certainly fortunate to have a hard working team.”