The best way Blount County can fill up the new Pellissippi Research and Development Park is by keeping the county’s scenic beauty in tact and embracing its neighbors, said Tennessee’s Senator and Blount County native Lamar Alexander.
“The main thing Blount County will have to do to fill up the technology park is to keep Blount County a nice place to live,” said Alexander, adding that marketing the park’s proximity to Oak Ridge was also key.
The senator was in East Tennessee to talk to area press and to announce his intention to run for re-election for the senate seat he has held since 2003. Blount Today talked to him about the research and development park and the economy.
Alexander said he thinks of the new park as an anchor to what he calls the Oak Ridge corridor. “It’s absolutely natural. The partnership with the science alliance between U.T. and Oak Ridge has never been stronger. The federal government spends $3 billion a year at Oak Ridge,” he said.
With a plan that focuses on the natural beauty of Blount County and the proximity to Oak Ridge and the University of Tennessee, the senator said Blount County would be in the position of choosing rather than recruiting companies for the park that would be environmentally friendly with jobs that pay high salaries.
“I think marketing is a big part and branding the Oak Ridge connection is key,” he said. “And the other part of it is being sure Blount County has plenty of open space, that the schools stay good and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is well taken care of so people want to live in this area.”
While local people are proud of where they live, Alexander said when he was governor and working to build the parkway connecting Oak Ridge and McGhee Tyson Airport, he stressed that Oak Ridge was a draw for this area.
“If you’re with the Chamber of Commerce in Maryville/Alcoa or with Blount County’s Economic Development group, you can go anywhere in the world and say ‘I’m from the Oak Ridge corridor,’ they’ll instantly know you are from a place that has a significant reputation unrivaled in the world.”
The senator said another little known fact is that at least 3,000 Ph.D.s live in the Knoxville area. “That’s more than are living around the Research Triangle in North Carolina. If the Oak Ridge corridor was as well known as Route 128 in Massachusetts or Silicon Valley in California, (the R&D park) can compete worldwide, and the research and development park would just fill up,” he said. “If someone is looking for a place with good schools and a nice environment and a community of intelligent, well-educated people, you’re not going to find a better place.”
Alexander said the local chambers and economic development boards present a united front when they come to him, Sen. Bob Corker and Rep. Jimmy Duncan for federal help and that makes it easier and he said he was looking for federal funding to help support the R and D park.
“I believe it’s on the right track for a variety of reasons,” said Alexander. “What Blount County needs more of in terms of employment are high tech jobs. Those jobs don’t pollute the environment, and they pay higher salaries. This is a natural area for high tech jobs. That doesn’t mean everyone will need a Ph.D., but the companies will be filling jobs that don’t pollute.”
The news on air quality and the region’s non-attainment status is going to be tougher, Alexander said. The amount of ozone and particulate matter in the air will be a little more stringent this year, based on rates set by the government.
The senator said that keeping the county beautiful isn’t an anti-growth policy. “It is, in some ways, a pro-growth policy. The way I like to think about it is that I’d like Blount County to think ahead 20 years and visualize in our minds what we would like the county to look like and think about what we need to do to get there,” he said.
The senator said Blount and Loudon counties already have the distinction of having one of the most scenic gateways to a national park in the country, thanks in large part to forward thinking by former State Rep. Bo Henry. Alexander credited Henry for his efforts when he was in the legislature to preserve scenic highways from junkyards and billboards.
“There are only two billboards on 321 from Loudon to Walland that were grandfathered in. Unfortunately, we didn’t think of cell towers,” he said.
Even cell towers shouldn’t be a deterrent, Alexander said. “Cell towers can be built in such a way as to not be such an eyesore. They don’t have to be so big. They can be camouflaged like trees or located where there already are towers, so there’s no need for people who want a view of the mountains to have a view of cell towers,” he said.
Alexander said people can make changes about lights and signs and things they build and where they build them to keep the area’s natural beauty. “The best way to keep businesses coming to the area is to keep it safe with good schools and attractive, open spaces. That’s the best economic development plan that exists and Blount County has it naturally,” he said.
Alexander said he is focusing his senatorial efforts in the near future on dealing with rising energy costs, providing health insurance for every American and stabilizing home prices.
His plan to help with the current housing market woes is to do two things: create a $15,000 tax credit for individuals buying a new or foreclosed homes and authorize $10 billion new dollars for the states to reinforce the sub-prime mortgages that have caused so many problems in the economy.
“If we get housing stabilized that would do more than anything to stabilize the economy,” Alexander said. “Everyone is holding back. The question is, where do we start getting back on track? Housing is the place to start,” he said. “In the ‘70s we had a tax credit for home buyers, and it worked. It helped reduce the backload of unsold homes from three years inventory to one year. That’s what we need to do now.”
Regarding the Federal Reserve’s decision this past weekend to provide emergency financing to Bear Stearns Cos., Alexander supported the move. The company had made a fortune in mortgage-backed securities but faced trouble after those investments soured. The senator said the federal government cannot stand idly by during these challenging economic times.
“This reminds me of when the Butcher banks failed in Tennessee in 1983. I was governor at the time, and we had to close United American Bank. It only closed for a weekend and First Tennessee Bank was there to buy it. Depositors didn’t lose a penny,” he said.
Alexander said the federal government’s intention wasn’t to bail out individuals who may have acted negligently or irresponsibly in the Bear Stearns emergency.
The bank had to get emergency financing from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to avoid being insolvent on Monday. The announcement triggered a 47 percent drop in the value of the bank and JP Morgan acquired the bank in a stock swap worth $236 million.
“The federal government and other federal agencies have a responsibility to make sure that the transition to where they are now to new owners happens without creating a huge lack of confidence in the financial marketplace,”
Alexander said. “I think they did the right thing in the Bear Stearns case.”
The senator said the people who lost money were Bear Stearns’ stock holders, whose shares went from a high of $170 to $2 per share.
“Everybody who had an obligation with Bear Stearns will be paid,” Alexander said. “That will increase confidence that the federal government will not let there be a run on a big bank.”