One on One: Four Lake Authority’s Don Rigsby
Liz Engel Clark
Monday, Jun 4, 2012
These days, Rigsby is steering the reins of a different kind of economic development group – the Four Lake Authority. Created by the Tennessee Legislature in 1986 following a mothballed Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) nuclear power plant project in Hartsville, Four Lake experienced a tumultuous 2011 amid claims that taxpayer dollars spent at its PowerCom industrial park weren’t yielding the expected results – aka jobs – that people wanted. After going into wind-down mode last July, which followed with the resignation of its last director, Four Lake now has until 2014 to turn a new leaf – and bring more businesses to the 554-acre site it bought from TVA back in 2002, as well as the five-county area Four Lake covers, Trousdale, Smith, Macon, Wilson and Sumner.
Rigsby started March 12 and was able to update us on the current situation at Four Lake for the June edition of our “One on One” segment.
Upper Cumberland Business Journal: Let’s start at the beginning: You’ve worked extensively in the region for some time. Talk about some of your previous experience, particularly in the Upper Cumberland.
Don Rigsby: I served 31 years with the Air National Guard in Nashville. I first went into the military, the Air Force, during Vietnam, in the ‘60s, stayed for four years, got out and worked locally. I went back into the military, into the Tennessee Air National Guard in Nashville, full time, and I was an accounting/financial supervisor, doing payrolls and that kind of thing, for about 15 years. Then I got the opportunity to go into recruiting. I spent 16 years total in recruiting, and I ended up being in charge of all the recruiting and retention in the state.
I retired in 1998 and got hired as the first full-time chamber of commerce (executive director) for Smithville-DeKalb County. I was there three years before I got offered the (same) position in McMinnville/Warren County. I was the chamber president and the director of the industrial development board, before we split that up and I was solely the industrial development board director. I was there about three years also before I got an opportunity to work with the state as their regional business development specialist for the Upper Cumberland. I worked with all 14 counties, mainly trying to assist the existing industry and trying to find new prospects for the region – Oreck was one of those projects. Most of them were expansions, working with existing industry, and that’s the real meat and potatoes in this area – keeping what you’ve got and growing it.
I retired (again) the first of July last year. With the new administration, the new changes, I decided it was time to slow down. Later, I got some folks calling me about this job, whether I’d be interested in putting my resume in. I pondered it, decided to apply and got selected.
CBJ: How has the Upper Cumberland, from your perspective, over the years, changed as a region?
DR: One of the things I tried to stress (while with the state), when I got leads, a lot of the communities didn’t have buildings or land. They didn’t have anything to sell. I stressed for them to start planning and start looking at buying or leasing land or something. That’s one of the things Cookeville did. They have about 400 acres now (in the Highlands Business Park). In Fentress County, in Clarkrange, they got 1,000 acres. Sparta’s another place, and they actually built a building. That’s the main thing, I just encouraged them to get ready.
We’re hoping to do the same thing with these five counties here. Working with all these five counties and getting them to work with us.
CBJ: Let’s switch over and talk about the history of the Four Lake Authority. What was the idea when it was created?
DR: There were 7,000 people working here at one time at that nuclear site, and they (TVA) scrapped the ($12 billion) project (in 1982). So they (the state) formed Four Lake to try to bring those jobs back. Mainly, we’ve been tasked with getting the infrastructure into that site (now the PowerCom park). We’ve got over 500 acres in the industrial park, a lot of old warehouse type buildings that TVA had. We have all that out there and we’re cleaning it up right now – painting and fixing, trying to encourage some prospects to come down.
We receive TVA in-lieu-of taxes funds – money goes to the state and it comes back to us. (Editor’s note: in 2010-2011 Four Lake received just less than $800,000 from TVA in-lieu-of taxes payments; the money is restricted for capital improvements).
CBJ: What’s there now, in terms of infrastructure?
DR: We’ve got about everything we need out at the park. Water. Sewer is there. We’ve got power, got dual-feed power (for uninterrupted electrical power) throughout the site. The first of June, that’s supposed to be done. We just got a state appropriation (of $419,000) to put broadband in there. That will bring fiber into the park – telephone, high-speed Internet. Right now, we couldn’t support a call center, but with fiber going in, we could support anything.
We have a dock for river traffic that’s not being used. TVA built that and used it during (the nuclear plant) construction. We’re hoping, with the plans (to reopen) the Gainesboro port, if they started dredging (the bottom of) the river down through our area, it will open up this whole channel. That’s another resource we have.
CBJ: It seems like Four Lake has all the pieces in place, and I’m sure a lot of money was been spent for some of the improvements you mentioned above, which was the reason for some of the turmoil last year. So, besides the economy, what’s holding this site back?
DR: …We have an industrial park, and it’s here in Hartsville. It’s not like it’s on the interstate or in a major city. It’s remote. It’s more difficult to bring jobs to this area. That’s the biggest problem we have.
The buildings and properties we’ve got are old. It just takes time to (improve) all that. The roads are fairly good, but they’re a little ways off the interstates and most projects want to be within five or 10 miles. We’re hoping the Highway 141 (improvement) project – Highway 141 goes from here to Lebanon – will put us within those limits. They’re working on that project in steps.
CBJ: Currently, PowerCom is home to just a handful of outfits like V&C/Christy’s, (which makes industrial adhesives for the plumbing and irrigation industry), Piedmont Gallery, (a flooring and millwork manufacturer), and ElecMech Salvage, (which makes switch boxes for mining). Four Lake made headlines in 2008 when CCA, Corrections Corporation of America, announced it would build a 2,000-bed prison on 108 acres at the site. But that project’s still in limbo. What’s the current status of CCA?
DR: They’ve got the site prepared for construction but the economy…and probably politics…has stalled them. The contract (they had with the state) for prisoners was shifted to another location. That’s something we’re hoping to resolve. Sen. (Mae) Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) is working on a meeting with the governor and the five county mayors. We’re going to discuss it, see what the plans are – if there are any plans – and maybe get a timeframe.
We know that if the CCA prison goes in, all that land down there is going to be a gold mine for their suppliers. Everybody will want in there.
CBJ: At one point, legislation was introduction in the General Assembly to withhold funding from Four Lake, and the organization was given a one-year ultimatum to shape up. Did you think some of the criticism was warranted? Have all these things hurt Four Lake, and how are you working to repair the group’s reputation?
DR: It definitely hurt. I think there was some changes needed…[long pause].
One of the things that was brought up in all the turmoil last year, there’s not been that many jobs for the money spent. But a lot of the money’s been put into infrastructure, and that’s very expensive. We purchased the land from TVA (for $1.7 million), added gas, water and sewer (for $2.3 million), planned and built a spec building (for $1.8 million), helped Trousdale County upgrade their water and sewer for CCA ($1.5 million), and added the dual-feed (for $500,000). More than $9 million has been spent overall.
Now, legislators want us to get more into the region and work with the other counties. That’s what I’ve been doing since I’ve been here. They wanted us to spend some of our money in those five counties, which we’re going to do.
The Legislature also changed our board structure, which will be effective July 1.
Four Lake had 21 board members, with the five county mayors as the executive board. That’s been changed. There’s going to be seven members – the five county mayors and two appointed members (one appointed by the Senate and one appointed by the House). My understanding is that went back to UCDD (the Upper Cumberland Development District), and having too many people on boards. It’s a good change.
I think we’ve turned the corner. They (the Legislature) have given us two more years to turn it around, and (our state representatives) are pretty excited about what we’ve got going already.
CBJ: With all that being said, what’s the outlook for the next two years – and possibly beyond?
DR: Right now, we’re completely cleaning up the site, cutting the grass, trimming. We repaired seven 4,000-square-foot buildings.
If we get CCA in there, we’ll have a lot of jobs. I’m hoping within two years, we’ll get the prison in. Highway 141 and the broadband (addition) are going to be the two biggest things that will help us. And working with all these five counties, getting them to work with us.
We’re not going to get the Volkswagens, but we need to work on those tier 3 and 4 (suppliers). And we’ve got some momentum going, and everybody seems to be behind us now. We’re going in the right direction.
We just need to keep it going.