Why is southern Middle Tennessee a hub for manufacturing?

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Some of the word’s largest car manufacturers are making big moves in Columbia’s own backyard, home of Spring Hill’s General Motors plant established in 1990.

In late September, the Ford Motor Company revealed its plans to build a battery plant and a truck assembly plant in the West Tennessee community of Stanton outside of Memphis at the Memphis Regional Megasite development. Ford and SK Innovation will invest $5.6 billion to build a 3,600-acre mega campus called Blue Oval City in Haywood County, where production of the next generation of all-electric F-Series trucks will begin in 2025.

More: Electrifying the industry: Electric vehicle investments in Tennessee to bring the future home

More: General Motors announces electric vehicle battery factory in Spring Hill

More: $2 billion investment ensures GM’s future in Spring Hill

The move adds to the state’s already blossoming manufacturing industry, stretching from Columbia to Memphis. The region can look to Maury County to catch a glimpse of how such an industry presence can shape a city and its surrounding area.

“This is a watershed moment for Tennesseans as we lead the future of the automotive industry and advanced manufacturing,” Gov Bill Lee said recently about Ford’s announcement.

Maury County has already experienced its share of watershed moments this year — as the fastest growing county in Tennessee, according to the 2020 U.S Census and ranking No. 1 in incoming investments in the state by think-tank SmartAsset.

More: Maury County ranks No. 1 in incoming investment in state, study says

County leaders weigh-in on local prosperity

In Maury County, Ryder System, Inc., which supports GM’s operations at the Spring Hill plant, is the county’s second largest employer following GM. The presence of GM has also shined light on the need for supply companies close by. 

The company is a transportation logistics and supply chain solutions operation that employs more than 1,000 union workers, contributing to GM’s team of more than 3,200 workers.

“As a leading third-party logistics provider for the automotive industry, Ryder manages the operations of some of the world’s largest vehicle manufacturers,” Steve Sensing, president of global supply chain solutions for Ryder, told The Daily Herald.

“As part of that, we regularly recruit and train people on behalf of our customers. With the automotive industry’s roots in Tennessee going back to the 1980s, we’re fortunate to have access to a workforce that has four decades of experience and is more than three times the size of the national average.”

Ryder continues to invest in the area by recruiting workers and providing training programs for the next generation.

“And, as vehicle manufacturers continue to invest in the area, Ryder continues to invest in training and retention programs to ensure we have the best possible workforce in place for our customers,” Sensing said.

Already established as an automotive giant, Maury County is also making its mark in the manufacturing industry as a whole, which is a major factor in shaping its future. 

Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, who says he’s focused on building business and industry in Maury County, praises the most recent $4.3 billion expansions at the GM plant. 

“We are a low-tax state and a rights-to-work state,” Ogles said.

He explained workers in the state are gaining a good reputation, building credibility with some of the world’s largest corporations.

“Tennesseans are known for their work ethic,” Ogles said. “We are a friendly people and all of those factors are important if you are a General Motors or a Ford.”

News about previous success is starting to spread.

“The fact that you can operate at lower costs and will have hard workers, if you are investing millions of dollars, you have to make sure there is a return on that investment,” Ogles said. “And Tennessee has been proven to be one of the best states in the country to do that.”

Sen. Joey Hensley R-Hohenwald, said the state’s emphasis on savings also serves as a point of interest for large businesses.

“Tennessee in generally is a fiscally responsible state,” Hensley said. “It is a right-to-work state, people like to live here and companies like to deal with us here. We have low taxes. When you look at other states like California, the cost of business is astronomical. They can do business here a lot cheaper and get good workers.”

Hensley’s statement proves true with the May relocation of the JC Ford company headquarters from California to Columbia, investing $30 million and bringing 210 new jobs. The tortilla machine-maker, which has contributed to the production of products like Doritos, chose Columbia as its next home because of lower taxes.

Connie Ruhe, 88, matriarch of the JC Ford Company family said she told her son Scott Ruhe, company president, “you ought to jump on it” in purchasing a manufacturing facility in Maury County. 

“It’s about the low taxes, people and schools that brought us here,” Ruhe said.

More: ‘Secret’s out’: How Maury County became the fastest growing county in Tennessee

Hensley said the absence of a state income tax also allures companies.

“That is a bigger deal than most people realize,” Hensley said. “They can get help from the state, and counties and cities are willing to help them. We want businesses to come here.”

A buzzing manufacturing hub

Maury County has attracted 37 economic projects, bringing more than 6,400 jobs and $5.5 billion in capital investments since 2014.

Of those projects, almost $4.3 billion has been generated in just the past 18 months, following the two GM announcements in creating the luxury electric SUV, the Lyriq ($2 billion) and the construction of the 2.8-million-square-foot Ultium battery facility ($2.3 billion) on Nashville Highway at the plant’s site. 

More: Maury County ranks No. 1 in incoming investment in state, study says

More: ‘Secret’s out’: How Maury County became the fastest growing county in Tennessee

In the last five years, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development has supported nearly 20 economic development projects in Maury County, accounting for approximately 4,000 job commitments and more than $3 billion in capital investment.

Projects have included the 2015 announcement of Landmark Ceramics’ $80 million project, constructing a now fully-operational 600,000-square-foot facility on 96 acres in Maury County, bringing 180 new jobs.

In 2019, Mersen which works with businesses in the energy, electronics, transportation, chemical, pharmaceuticals and process industries, opened an operation. The company announced it would invest up to $65 million and hire 100 local employees, reawakening part of a vacant Union Carbide facility that previously employed generations of workers in Columbia.

The facility is the global manufacturer’s 10th U.S. location.

During the same time, the $60.9 million dollar manufacturing facility of the Japanese auto parts maker Fuel Total Systems opened in the Cherry Glen Industrial Park in Mt. Pleasant, bringing 150 new jobs to the region.

The plant remains the largest addition to the Maury County-owned industrial complex, which broke ground on its first 50,000-square foot facility in August of 2016.

An established workforce

Maury County Chamber and Economic Alliance President Wil Evans spends much of his time facilitating deals that bring major businesses to the region and the lucrative jobs that come with them.

“There are a lot of factors at play,” Evans said. “Tennessee is a very business-friendly state. Looking over the past 10 years, Nashville has really grown and come into its own and so has the greater region. We still are an affordable option in the region while also offering a high quality of life and a low tax burden.”

He said the quality of the region’s workforce has also been a major contributing factor in bringing enterprise to the region, keeping them and attracting more industry giants.

“We have been very advantageous in the workforce that we have here, while still being able to draw on the Nashville market as well,” Evans said.

Bob Rolfe, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic Development, said the recent announcement of Ford just adds to the state’s booming automotive industry, which will be felt across the state. 

“The ripple effect resulting from these projects will be transformational for our state, especially West Tennessee, and we are most grateful for this enormous investment and the addition of two top global brands,” Rolfe said.

Reach Mike Christen at mchristen@c-dh.net. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeChristenCDH and on Instagram @michaelmarco. Please consider supporting his work and that of other Daily Herald journalists by subscribing to the publication.