For 10 months, Project Victor was kept top secret. Company executives came (sometimes unannounced). Company executives went. Land was annexed. Incentives were discussed and calculated and extended for the industrial prospect.
Now, of course, it’s no longer under wraps – and Cookeville has been crowned the winner in a six-city race. During a ceremony Aug. 8 at Cookeville’s Dogwood Park, Academy Sports + Outdoors confirmed plans for a 1.6 million square foot distribution facility – to be the largest under one roof in the state of Tennessee – a $100 million investment and the need for 700 new jobs by the end of 2020.
But behind the congratulatory speeches, high-fives and big blue banners that spanned the stage of the park’s performance pavilion is a much different story – and quite the economic development tale. See, Project Victor didn’t follow the mold usually used to land industrial prospects. And many considered Cookeville a long shot from the very beginning.
Too grandiose for the new Highlands Business Park – Academy’s planned distribution facility will be a square foot larger than every NFL football field combined – Project Victor was directed instead to more than 200 acres just outside its parameters, tracts located south of Old Stewart Road along Interstate 40 on the western side of the city. Enough land, yes, but with a host of other issues, among them annexation, wetlands, road access and more.
“Every economic development class you go to, every forum, (they say) you should never do it this way,” said Melinda Keifer, economic and community development coordinator for the city of Cookeville. “(They say) municipalities should own the land. You need to have the infrastructure in place. You’ve got to be ready, be ready, be ready. And at this site, we didn’t have any of that. So it’s kind of cool. If the project – and ultimately the company – is a perfect match, then everyone is willing to go through the extra steps.
“On this one, everything kind of fell in place,” she said.
So how did Cookeville land the region’s biggest economic development announcement in decades? There certainly were a lot of factors at play.
The very first correspondence on Project Victor hits Keifer’s inbox late one afternoon. According to a TVA rep, there’s a prospect in need of around 200 acres; does the city have anything? Keifer had been working with a property owner at the Project Victor site back in the spring on another possible project, but hadn’t been in touch in months. She shot back a map of the property for the rep to take a look.
Two days later, Keifer said, TVA and state officials are on site to see the land first-hand. It’s their job to vet the acreage for the site selector working with Project Victor. Cookeville is working its way onto the short list.
“They (TVA) got here and said, ‘yeah, I think you may have something here,’” Keifer said. “So we just started working through the filters.”
LATER THAT OCTOBER
Project Victor’s site consultant, J. Michael Mullis, makes the trip to Putnam County. Soon after, the city receives an official request for information, or RFI, a 36-page document that asks for various data, utility rates, tax rates, crime rates, school enrollment, etc. Cookeville is in contention.
At that time, Keifer says, five or six other cities are also being considered – including four or five from Middle Tennessee and one in Kentucky. Some of the sites are more built out than Cookeville; some are already government owned.
The week before Turkey Day, city, chamber and county officials have an opportunity to host Project Victor company representatives. Those reps tour the area, are given presentations, and get their first real feel for the city. At this point, the process is still very guarded, Keifer says. It’s likely the group went to evaluate the other sites on their list before and after their stop here.
“It’s still first names only; no business cards ever exchanged hands. It’s like you’re still on your first date,” she said. “But if you can get the company here –to see who we are and how we work – you feel like you have a good chance of winning them over. That’s kind of the cool part.”
In no particular order:
1) The number of sites considered for Project Victor is narrowed down;
2) The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development commits $4.8 million in the form of a FastTrack grant to Project Victor;
3) And, the city of Cookeville is able to secure an option agreement with three property owners that hold title on the land Victor is eying. That option gives the city first rights of refusal for a period of one year, meaning the city would have the opportunity to purchase the property if the owners received another allowable offer.
And those property owners were key, Keifer said. During Victor’s formal unveiling and announcement in August, she commended them for their “leap of faith” and for the contribution they were making to the community.
“It wasn’t just a great location, it was their land, their family (history),” Keifer told the UCBJ. “All the property owners had either grown up out there or their family (members) had. That needs to be recognized and respected. They did take a leap of faith.”
The option ultimately allows the company to begin its vetting process of the land, surveys and soil samples and the like.
The city starts the annexation process for Project Victor’s 200-plus acres. Since the land is outside the Cookeville city limits – and partially outside the city’s designated urban growth boundary – a referendum also must be held. Those votes will be taken during the May county primary and will only be open to the residents affected.
A public hearing is held on the requested annexation. In May, it passes as a ballot item with a 100-percent return. Keifer is also given the very first indications that Cookeville may, in fact, be the winning site.
“That means you shift into the next phase and work to get through the next set of hurdles. At that point, we still had lots of hurdles to go through,” she said, mitigation needs and permitting topping the list.
Incentive talks kick into high gear.
The Cookeville city council votes to approve a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Project Victor. City officials still aren’t talking, but the agreement spells out several key pieces of information. Project Victor would bring 700 jobs by Dec. 31, 2020, and make a $100 million investment to acquire, construct and equip its facility. Project Victor also agrees to a 30-year PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) with the city and county but will pay a 15 percent ad valorem tax, or levy, on its facility and equipment.
“That will be huge for this community,” Keifer says. “It’s a great pledge for a long-term partnership between Academy Sports and the Upper Cumberland region.”
Aug. 4: The Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber of Commerce issues a save-the-date for a “special economic development” announcement. No mention of Victor is made. Gov. Bill Haslam confirms his attendance for the Aug. 8 event on Aug. 7.
Aug. 8: The announcement is made. Moments before Haslam takes to the stage, three banners bearing the Academy Sports logo are lifted. Officials from TVA, ECD, Tennessee Department of Transportation and Academy’s executive team are introduced.
“This is a big deal for Putnam County, a big deal for Cookeville, Tenn., but this is an even bigger deal for Academy Sports + Outdoors,” company CEO Rodney Faldyn said during the event. “This allows us to continue to grow. This distribution center is extremely important as we continue to grow in the South, the Southeast, and as we continue to expand into the Midwest. This really allows us to launch our footprint outward. We couldn’t be happier with our selection.”
Work at the site has already begun. Academy says it will be operational by early 2016. Hiring should start around the end of 2015. A contract on the fifth interchange, an interstate connector project along Interstate 40 west of South Willow Avenue, should be let in either October or November and work should start this winter.
Officials say it’s also only the beginning for the Highlands Business Park area. Of all the factors involved in landing Academy Sports, it too was key in the process.
“If the Highlands Business Park and the fifth interchange hadn’t already been in the works, we wouldn’t be here,” Keifer said. “I think that’s fair to say. Decisions made 10 years ago, 15 years ago, all became key components.”
George Halford, president/CEO of Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber and Highlands Economic Partnership, agrees.
“Without the team effort of all our partners, this wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “The groundwork was laid long ago and made possible by the fifth interchange and adjoining business park, as well as the remarkable business community we have here in the Highlands region.”
As for the moral of the story, Keifer said, prepare for the long haul, even in the best of scenarios. And work together.
“Every challenge we were faced with, we took it on as a team,” she said. “Whether that was the chamber, directors at the city (level), TVA, Upper Cumberland Electric (Membership Corporation), it could not have been a more pleasurable experience. It was a lot of hard work, but it was a great experience.”