NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Two leading Republican candidates for governor in Tennessee drew a contrast over an economic development “megasite” during a forum Thursday.
At the Tennessee Press Association forum, former state economic development chief Randy Boyd said it’s worth the time and remaining investment of $70 million-plus to the Memphis Regional Megasite because it could help create more than 30,000 jobs.
But businessman Bill Lee said there isn’t currently a workforce prepared for the jobs that the megasite might attract.
The megasite, located about 45 miles (70 kilometers) from downtown Memphis, has already received about $144 million in state funding. Current state economic development chief Bob Rolfe has said the extra money would make the site “shovel-ready.” Term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed $30.7 million in bonds for wastewater improvements at the site in the upcoming budget.
It was the lack of finishing touches that led Toyota-Mazda to build its plant elsewhere, picking northern Alabama. The $1.6 billion facility is projected to create up to 4,000 jobs and have an annual production capacity of about 3,000 vehicles.
“It’s worth the investment and time that we need to make that happen,” said Boyd, a Knoxville businessman who founded a company that produced invisible pet fences. “The second thing though, I think it’s also important and I think some people are missing, some of the companies that are looking at that site don’t have to have every single thing done before they locate on the site.”
Lee, a construction company owner from Franklin, said it’s a “great disappointment” that the site wasn’t ready. He said companies like his would gladly open their doors to create satellite offices for vocational training across the state.
“This doesn’t come from creating a bigger government program,” Lee said.
Boyd stressed that the state needs to complete its goal of 55 percent of residents with higher education degrees or certificates by 2025. Haslam has said the state is on pace to reach that mark two years early in the Drive to 55 initiative, which includes free state community college and technical school tuition for new high school graduates and adults without a college degree or certificate.
Boyd said he would install technical school satellite campuses at every high school in the state.
Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, both Democrats, and lesser-known Republican Kay White also participated in the largely agreeable forum, which touched on not pre-empting local government decisions, transparency, Medicaid expansion and other topics.
Two Republicans didn’t participate. U.S. Rep. Diane Black’s campaign said the Gallatin lawmaker was visiting the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville said she was overseeing a legislative floor session.