What began as a quest for new industrial properties more than a year ago has led to the Scott County Industrial Development Board being well positioned to offer attractive sites to prospective new employers as 2021 begins.
The 2020 calendar year was a big one for the IDB, which acquired not one but two major industrial sites: the former East Tennessee Enterprise Partnership buildings at Scott County Airport, and the former Tibbals-Hartco property in Oneida.
“When I first came back into office (in 2018), we were out of properties,” said Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals. “We had nothing to offer.”
Tibbals realized the need for new properties to aid Scott County’s recruitment of new industry. He needed help securing those properties, so he turned to an old colleague who has knowledge in that arena: Huntsville attorney Don Stansberry Jr.
Stansberry had just retired, and had time to invest. Tibbals nominated Stansberry to the IDB. The appointment was confirmed, and Stansberry went to work.
“Don has been very aggressive,” Tibbals said. “Now we have properties.”
Stansberry directs the credit at Tibbals.
“Jeff had a couple of things he thought we might be able to do, and I’ve tried to get them done,” Stansberry said.
The end result was the acquisition of two prime industrial sites: one with direct access to the county’s airport, and the other with direct access to the Norfolk-Southern Railroad.
At the airport, the IDB acquired two buildings totaling more than 50,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing space on nearly eight acres of property. Those were properties that Stansberry immediately targeted. Originally built in 2000, they have always been under-utilized, and were primarily being used for former State Rep. Les Winningham’s government-secured small business loan program.
“They have been virtually unused for years,” Stansberry said of the buildings. “One had been used a little bit but not lately, and the other hadn’t really been used.”
After negotiations with ETEP, “we got that just handed over to us,” Tibbals said. The IDB had to agree to several stiuplations since federal funding was involved, but with the agreements in place, the buildings have already been rented: to Oneida-based JDS Technologies. One of JDS’s two manufacturing plants in Oneida is located on the other side of the airport, and owners Jerry and Diane Slaven plan to use the former ETEP buildings for further expansion — which is a story unto itself.
Next came the former Hartco site in Oneida. The Tibbals family sold out to Armstrong years ago, and Armstrong had since sold out to American Hardwood Flooring. So, the 110-acre industrial site was two generations removed from the Tibbals days, perhaps making it somewhat ironic that the Tibbals name was back in the picture, with Mayor Tibbals negotiating on behalf of the county to acquire the property that his family once owned.
“Jeff had been chasing the Armstrong rabbit for a while,” Stansberry said. “The problems were that Armstrong had cut back and reduced and reduced and were using very little of that property. And while they were using very little of it, the rest of it was just falling apart.
“The danger,” Stansberry added, “Is that right there in the middle of Oneida you had a blighted area that was going to be a problem for a long time.”
Through negotiations with AHF, an agreement was reached on an initial purchase price. Stansberry set about the task of preparing to raise money for the IDB to buy the property. Then AHF came back to the table with what Tibbals called a substantially reduced price.
All-told, the 110-acre site and the buildings that sit on it are appraised at $4 million. The county was able to purchase it for pennies on the dollar.
“It is a real opportunity,” Stansberry said.
As is the case with the ETEP property, there were extenuating circumstances at the Armstrong site — mainly in the form of environmental issues. The county teamed up with a Knoxville-based firm last week to conduct an online auction to sell off the equipment and inventory that AHF left behind, and will use proceeds from that sale to pay for the environmental assessments that need to be conducted. Other environmental work has already begun, such as dealing with asbestos in some of the buildings. Two utility companies — which preferred not to be named — offered grants to help with the purchase cost and the environmental work.
As site preparation continues, some of those buildings will be torn down. Others — totaling about 150,000 sq. ft. — can be renovated. The bottom line: there’s shovel-ready industrial sites — perfectly level, with rail access — to offer to prospective employers.
“It’s really good industrial property,” Stansberry said. “Those lumber storage properties were built to hold 30 ft. stacks of oak lumber. It’s a real opportunity to take what could be a negative for Oneida and make it a positive and a place to work people.”
Stansberry points out that, at its peak, more than 800 people worked at the wood flooring plant.
Both Stansberry and Tibbals applauded AHF for being “really generous” in the arrangement. Tibbals added that one potential misperception is that the IDB had to spend a lot of money to acquire the property. In fact, he said, they did not.
“People think we went out and spent a bunch of money but we didn’t,” Tibbals said. “We have the two different groups who have pitched in money, we’re working to get grants, and we pretty much had it just given to us.”
Back in the game
When Stansberry retired from his law practice, he was looking for a way to be involved in the community. There was a time after he moved to Scott County in the mid 1960s that he was much involved, working alongside his close friends Howard Baker Jr. and Bill Swain, whom he called “unstoppable promoters of Scott County and close associates.” As his law firm grew and business took him around the country, Stansberry began spending less time at home, even though Scott County was always his home.
“When I retired, I thought I would like to find something I could help out with,” he said. “I do know how to do this sort of thing, and Jeff is a mayor you can feel good about helping. He’s solid and things he tries to do are worthwhile. I like helping.”
The next step for the IDB is to continue preparation of the former Armstrong site. After that, it’ll be time to market the property.
“We need to get a site plan for it, and TVA is going to help us do that,” Stansberry said. “One of the first things I learned in real estate is the mistake you make if you aren’t careful is doing things before you plan.”
Then, Stansberry has a specific idea of what kind of industry he thinks Scott County should target.
“You gotta find people who need what you’ve got and who aren’t just looking for cheap labor and free buildings,” he said, adding that he would like to see Scott County be able to attract companies that are interested in putting down roots and becoming a long-term partner of the community.
Tibbals agrees. And, as he reflects back on 2020, he sums up the IDB’s work like this: “Before we didn’t have any properties. Now we do. So now we just have to develop them and get people in them.”
JDS to utilize former ETEP buildings in latest expansion
Scott County’s newly-acquired industrial properties at the county’s municipal airport and at the former Armstrong flooring plant site are already paying off for local industry. The former ETEP buildings adjacent to the Scott County Airport have been leased by Oneida-based JDS Technologies Inc., and will be used to accommodate yet another expansion of the growing industrial firm.
Jerry Slaven, president and founder of JDS, said Monday that he is in the process of renovating the first of the two buildings, and will use both buildings on the property to meet his company’s growing needs as new growth is seen in the injection and compression molding industry.
The former ETEP property will become JDS’s third plant in Scott County. It’s an incredible growth story for the Slaven team of Jerry and Diane Slaven, who moved their company to Oneida from the Midwest on a couple of flatbed trailers less than two decades ago.
JDS’s original factory, located just around the curve from the ETEP property, has undergone several expansions. More recently, JDS acquired the former ABC building in Winfield, just south of the TN-KY border. With the addition of the former ETEP property, JDS will create three divisions for its Tennessee operation.
“We’re going to have a plastics division, a compression molding division and a rubber injection molding division,” Slaven said. “We’ll have three different divisions, and each will have focused factory management. We’ll have a small management team at each location that manages a precision site, similar to our facility in Indiana.”
In Indiana, JDS has two facilities which operate under the brand Omega Processes Solutions.
The company also has a sales and distribution center in Louisiana, and another in Detroit.
But much of the work is done right here in Scott County. JDS has grown to become one of Scott County’s leading employers, and Slaven said the addition of the more than 50,000 sq. ft. at the former ETEP site, and the splitting of his manufacturing operations into three separate divisions, will create the opportunity to put more people to work.
At one point, JDS’s work force climbed as high as 300. With the coronavirus pandemic, it is currently down to about 170. But growth is ongoing, and JDS is poised to continue its expansions.
“We’re adding more product lines all the time,” Slaven said. “We have two new lines in the automotive sector right now. And we’ll continue to expand and offer jobs.”
From manufacturing rubber tie-down straps to expanding into the appliance industry and later the oil industry, JDS continues to diversify. Among its latest products: manufacturing the rubber grommets that you see when you open your car door. The grommets house the wires that supply power to the various controls in the door, and JDS’s products are in Ford’s new F150, as well as in every Subaru and some GM cars, as well.
“The latest ones we’re launching are 13 new ones that are going into Ford, GM and Chrysler,” Slaven said. “We’ll be in full production by the end of this year.”
The irony, Slaven said, is that all of the talk nationally is about the U.S.’s reliance on China, and supplies being shipped to America from China. But from its manufacturing plants in Scott County, “We’re shipping 200,000 to 300,000 pieces a month into China,” he said.
And that number is going to grow with JDS’s expansion into the former ETEP buildings.