Truck trailers stretch into the horizon in a back lot at Trenton's new Vanguard plant.
What's going on with the Dade County Industrial Development Authority these days?
That's something the Planet likes to keep up with. IDA is an unelected quasi-governmental board that disposes of millions of taxpayer dollars. But in March, the body didn't meet at all, and in its April session on Monday, IDA met almost entirely in executive, or closed-door session, from which it emerged with nothing to share with The Planet or the public.
Nevertheless, The Planet persisted. The following is what The Planet learned from the brief public portion of IDA's April 24 meeting, and from a chat immediately following the meeting with Peter Cervelli, IDA's personable executive director.
Cervelli expressed to the board, or to such members of it as were present--attendance was low, and Cervelli said one of the reasons for last month's cancellation had been a quorum issue--some frustration with Norfolk Southern Railroad.
The rail company charged IDA close to half a million dollars for signal work at the railroad crossing on Vanguard Road, the entrance conduit IDA, in conjunction with the county and city, built for the new Vanguard plant it brought to Dade. "I told Norfolk Southern I'm not paying it until we have a sitdown," said Cervelli.
IDA did, after all, have to build a new road because of safety issues at the crossing, said Cervelli. "I think they have some responsibility for it," he said. "I've asked our senator to make this meeting happen."
He referred to Georgia State Senator Jeff Mullis, with whom he said he'd spoken about problems communicating with the rail company.
Cervelli told the board that May is the month his next six-month review of the Vanguard situation is due, and that he had a meeting with Vanguard scheduled for this week in that regard.
IDA granted Vanguard extensive tax breaks and free land in exchange for promises it would provide jobs and invest money in Dade in Trenton. Cervelli's report will cover progress on those pledges.
Board member Larry Case, patriarch of Case Hardware, indicated a degree of disappointment in Vanguard. "When they came to the county they were supposed to bring all this business into the county," he said. "We haven't seen that."
Questioned after the meeting, Case said that Vanguard had promised to bring new business to Dade merchants and Dade contractors. "But they never have brought business of any size into the county," he said.
Asked to comment about that, Cervelli said it wasn't the first time he'd heard the complaint. "The real question is what do they buy, other than bringing in bringing in stuff from their suppliers to build their trailers," said Cervelli.
He said he'd address that in his meeting with the truck trailer manufacturer. "I will ask their purchasing people, are you spending your dollars on incidentals here in Dade County or not," he said.
Asked if he had any qualms himself about the Vanguard plant, which IDA went to some trouble to bring to the county, and on which both the county and city have spent quantities of money and man-hours, Cervelli replied: "I'm not unhappy with them. As long as they make their commitment, I'm happy. They've already invested their 30 million, checkmark. The next goal is 400 jobs."
Cervelli said of the 400 jobs that were part of Vanguard's side of the bargain with IDA, the company had so far hired about 140. "I think their ramp-up plan was to start putting people on again at the end of this year," he said.
Vanguard continues recruiting, he acknowledged, but he believes that is to replace turnover as opposed to growing the workforce.
Will Vanguard ever really employ the full 400? "They'd better come through," said Cervelli. "Otherwise the state of Georgia's going to be looking for some of their million dollars back."
Georgia chipped in $1 million in cash to bring the plant to Dade County.
Asked whether the local labor pool is a problem--Cervelli had stated at a meeting on the Trenton-Dade 10-Year Comprehensive Plan that a scarcity of qualified workers was a challenge for Dade--Cervelli said it was true he'd heard "indirectly" that companies were hesitant to come to the Chattanooga area because of problems with the workforce. Local schools are striving to turn out good laborers, he said, but to get someone through the school system to some kind of job certification takes years. "They are trying to work toward what we call vocational training, but it's a long pipeline," he said.
On the other hand, said Cervelli, in Vanguard's case: "When they find somebody, they're pretty happy with them. They think the workers here are pretty good." But, he added, "They had to go through a lot of people to find those people."
As far as problems, said Cervelli: "Now, there may be individuals who have a drug problem--not that many."
One way or the other, Vanguard remains Dade's greathope on the employment front. Cervelli said "Project Baseball," code name for Dade's attempt to lure a mystery company to the area, had fizzled. It would have meant 700 jobs and a quarter-billion-dollar investment in Dade, he said, but the mystery company chose a Tennessee county instead.
"They went to some thousand-acre industrial park, and whatever else the state threw at them," said Cervelli.
He named the company as LG Electronics, a manufacturer of appliances and entertainment devices.
IDA's next meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. on May 24 in the Dade Administrative Building.