Governor goes “back to the future” with Memphis Megasite push

By: - June 11, 2021 10:15 am
Flanked by legislative leaders, Gov. Bill Lee signs - for the second time -a law permitting permitless gun carry. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

Flanked by legislative leaders, Gov. Bill Lee signs – for the second time -a law permitting permitless gun carry at a Middle Tennessee Beretta factory in June 2021. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

Gov. Bill Lee sent out a press release this week hailing a renewed effort to market the Memphis Regional Megasite in Haywood County and – at long last – build a wastewater line needed to attract a major manufacturer.

It’s a tactical change of sorts because not too long ago, state officials were saying Tennessee could wait until it identifies a client before building the sewage line to the Mississippi River.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway calls it a “back to the future” attitude, because Gov. Lee’s move simply pulls old plans from the shelf, dusts them off and makes them sound new.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-92). Chair of the Tennessee Caucus of Black Legislators. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis), says Gov. Bill Lee is going “back to the future.” (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

The Memphis Democrat contends the state missed an opportunity during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 to move forward on the 4,100-acre site and start knocking down the doors of the tech world.

Instead, the state sat on the tract like a mad mother hen.

Nevertheless, Lee sent out this statement with a plan to take the wastewater pipeline project to the State Building Commission in July as part of a $52 million expense that includes water lines too.

“The Memphis Regional Megasite offers tremendous opportunity for West Tennessee, and I am committed to building out infrastructure and supporting area workforce as we find the right company for this space,” Lee said. “I have directed the Department of Economic and Community Development to aggressively market the Megasite and offer enhanced incentives to companies demonstrating a long-term desire to call Haywood County home.”

A study commissioned by the state shows the lack of the wastewater line as one of the site’s biggest shortcomings, along with an inadequate skilled workforce to handle thousands of jobs that might come along in the form of an original equipment manufacturer. The tract has enough land for four major plants. 

Lee would deal with that worker shortage through an $80 million investment in Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology to open up spaces for 11,000 students waiting to get into the schools. In addition, the governor’s administration is set to put $100 million into broadband next fiscal year to connect rural areas to the Internet.

Instead of marketing the Memphis Megasite during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the state sat on the tract of land like a mad mother hen.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Could these be two mad mother hens? (Photo: Getty Images)

Hardaway is not quite satisfied, contending the state should be more targeted about the type of companies it’s trying to bring in, possibly solar panel makers to complement the panels already there, electric battery manufacturers to supply Nissan, GM and Volkswagen or other types of technological companies. Those would certainly be better than mega-warehouses, which is what the Smith Seckman Reid study shows the site would be able to attract under the current scenario.

The governor also could get a lot more specific by guaranteeing the state would build a technology school to serve a major company the state is trying to lure to the megasite, which sits about 45 miles northeast of Memphis off I-40. Nissan in Smyrna has a TCAT partnership.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally feels that would be one solution to solving workforce problems. But he doesn’t think the governor should have moved any sooner because of the expense related to the site.

“We had some serious questions about it a number of years ago,” dating back to former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s Administration, McNally said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Paul Rose, a Covington Republican who’s been pushing hard for the project, said he hopes the governor uses a revised plan for the wastewater line that will enable commercial and residential development to hook up along the corridor from Bartlett to Tipton County. It calls for the city of Covington to be the wastewater treatment plant operator.

Rose also counters that a workforce study put together for Haywood, Tipton and Lauderdale counties shows the region has an adequate workforce. He doesn’t think the governor is making the move with the 2022 gubernatorial election in mind, either.

“I think it’s a legitimate step forward. He made that commitment during his campaign that he wanted to see the accelerated growth of West Tennessee,” Rose said.

Lee put $15 million in the fiscal 2021-22 budget for the megasite, bringing the state’s total investment to $189 million. With only $88 million allocated, even if the state spends another $52 million, it’ll still be holding on to about $50 million.

It’s a long time coming.

Governors demand action on border

Gov. Lee joined Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa Thursday in demanding the Senate Judiciary Committee hold a hearing on the Southern border “crisis” and influx of unaccompanied minors into the country.

“We believe this hearing should also address the Biden Administration’s failure to provide notice and transparency in their movement of unaccompanied migrant children into states,” the letter says.

The letter contends Iowa and Tennessee have seen a series of “disturbing incidents” in which unaccompanied migrant children were brought into the states “under the cover of darkness, with no advance notification, consent of plan from federal partners.”

One wonders if it would have mattered if a group of children had been flown into a Chattanooga airport in the middle of the day. And to most people’s knowledge, only 61 unaccompanied children have come to Tennessee since the governor declined Biden’s request to accept children. 

The Department of Children’s Services inked the license with the Baptiste Group to take unaccompanied minors, as well as refugees, so this sort of lies in the state’s hands as well as that of the feds. 

A little girl holds her mother's hand at a 2017 demonstration for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)
A little girl holds her mother’s hand at a 2017 demonstration for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Unaccompanied migrant children were allegedly brought into the state “under cover of darkness.” Would it have matter if the kids had been flown to Chattanooga in the middle of the day?

And based on numerous news reports, most of the children coming into America are from countries such as Guatemala and Honduras, where they live in stick huts, facing rape, violence and other horrible living conditions.

Are they so different from children and adults who hold official refugee status because of political and religious persecution?

Maybe, just maybe, a new legislative study committee on refugees will move past the “rhetoric,” as Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire said, and figure it out. But will it be able to tell the federal government what to do?

And the Vandy survey says …

The latest poll of Tennesseans shows a large chunk of Republican voters and independents won’t get a COVID-19 vaccine while nearly all of Democrats say they’re getting inoculated. Maybe those Republicans don’t think they need the shot because they’ve already caught the virus and think they have the antibodies built up to avoid it. Let’s hope so.

A swath of Republicans also believes Joe Biden somehow stole the 2020 presidential election even though every state in the union has certified its results. Go figure.

Some 59% of Tennesseans don’t like Gov. Lee’s permit-less carry law, although 57% of Republicans surveyed said they favor the law, in contrast to only 6% of Democrats.

The law applies only to law-abiding people over 21, with exceptions for those in active military service. Those with stalking convictions and DUIs in the last five years are not allowed to carry without a permit.

(Photo taken Feb. 3, 2021 in Memphis, Tennessee, by Karen Pulfer Focht.)
(Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

Survey says? Most Tennesseans are opposed to Gov. Bill Lee’s new permitless carry gun law.

Asked if he’s concerned about a majority of Tennesseans opposing the law, Lee said his administration analyzed the bill and looked at 18 other states where it’s legal.

“I think we’ve done the right thing for Tennessee, and Tennesseans will see that, and the data shows that as well,” he said.

Lee’s popularity jumped back to 65% from 57% over the last six months, but he doesn’t think it has anything to do with his commentary on national political affairs.

“Gosh, I hope that Tennesseans recognize I wake up every day thinking about how to make life better for every single Tennessean and institute policies that do such. I care about the people in this state, and I care about this state itself,” he said.

No doubt, those who lose federal unemployment benefits two months sooner than expected will question his sincerity while the businesses receiving another round of federal stimulus money will be feeling the love.

Still disputing jobs

For weeks, Gov. Lee has used the figure of 250,000 open jobs to justify his decision to cut federal unemployment benefits. Senate Democrat staff has been disputing that figure and now says the number is even more misleading.

In a release this week, Democratic staff said only 3% of the jobs posted have salaries above $20,000. In addition, just about 192,000 of those jobs are more than a month old, likely meaning few people qualify for them. Just 45,000 were posted in the last two weeks, according to the release.

High hopes at Neyland

The State Building Commission approved revisions Thursday for a $180 million renovation project at the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium, $109 million of which will be financed by the Tennessee State School Bond Authority. More than $37 million will come from athletic funds and $33.6 million from gifts.

Work entails renovations of the south grounds and concourse levels, improvements to the west bowl seating area, demolition of the south hall and updated utilities. New items include gates, a north video board and new features for fans.

UT President Randy Boyd emerged from the meeting saying the goal is to “increase the fan experience.” 

New Athletics Director Danny White is focused on improving the experience for fans, Boyd said, adding “I think this will help us definitely do that and be on par with other premier sporting events in the news around the country.”

But will it help the struggling football team improve its performance in the toughest conference in the nation?

“I think Josh Heupel will help the team play better,” Boyd said of the program’s new coach.

Considering the team’s woes for more than a decade, though, it’s probably safe to say the only thing that will improve their experience is wins – mainly over dratted Alabama and Florida.

Harwell on the rebound?

Three years after a rough defeat in the Tennessee gubernatorial race, former House Speaker Beth Harwell is getting the urge to re-enter politics, possibly with a run for Congress.

But to do that, she might need a little help from the state Legislature in the form of redistricting that would split off southwestern Davidson County where she lives into a Republican-friendly district. 

Former Speaker of the House Beth Harwell. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Former Speaker of the House Beth Harwell. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

That might require dismantling the 5th Congressional District held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville. The potential scenario was first reported by the Tennessee Journal, and Harwell confirmed it this week. 

Harwell told the Tennessee Lookout she believes she would have a lot to give Middle Tennessee as a member of Congress. But she’s waiting to see what the Legislature does in the way of drawing new district lines before deciding whether to run for office.

The fact she is open to running could color Republicans’ views as they decide whether to carve up Davidson County, potentially winning eight of nine seats but possibly losing GOP-controlled districts over the next decade if Democrats get a hot hand.

It’s a calculated risk.

I’m not Tommy Tutone

Cooper, a veteran congressman, is adamant that dismantling the 5th District would hurt Davidson County economically and, thus, damage the state. 

“After redistricting, you won’t be able to find your Republican congressman unless you go to Cookeville, Clarksville, Franklin or South Pittsburg,” Cooper said in a statement.

Cooper contends he’s so in touch with Nashville he’s willing to give his cell phone number to everyone 615-714-1719. It’s not exactly 867-5309, and I won’t go as far to say you can call it for a good time. But it’s worth a shot for some political wonk time.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.