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Plateau Park: Will the cooperative venture pay off?

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By The Staff

By DAMON LAWRENCE

rclawrence@bellsouth.net

A great day for Roane County.

That’s how County Executive Mike Farmer described the Plateau Partnership Park before a ground-breaking ceremony last fall.

It was also an expensive day for the Roane County taxpayers.

Plateau Partnership Park is a joint industrial park venture between Cumberland, Morgan and Roane counties. Each county reportedly agreed to issue bonds of $2.5 million for the project.

Roane County has already committed more than that to the park.

A document that denotes the debt service on $1.75 million the county has borrowed so far, shows the total principal and interest will amount to a little over $3.1 million when the final payment is made in 2024.

The 1,000-acre-plus park is located off Interstate 40 in Cumberland and Morgan counties.

None of the land is located in Roane County, but local officials contend the county will benefit from the expected job growth.

Farmer and the heads of the other counties involved in the park say the money tied up in the project is chump change compared to the long-term financial returns the park will have on the area.

That was the consensus the day of the groundbreaking and it hasn’t changed five months later.

“We’re transforming this part of our region from a very rural area to potentially a very wonderful place for people to have great jobs, live in wonderful homes, have a happy family and be able to do all the things we hope to do here in America,” Cumberland County Mayor Brock Hill said.

Morgan County Executive Becky Ruppe said the park could ensure a low unemployment rate for the next generation of Cumberland, Morgan and Roane countians.

“We’re always Band-Aiding,” she said. “Let’s do something that’s going to give my grandchildren a job. Let’s plan for their future. Let’s not be 20 years behind; let’s be 20 years ahead. That’s what we’re doing here.”

Roane County budget director Alva Moore said the $1.75 million the county has already borrowed went toward the purchase of the land. The county still has an additional $750,000 it can borrow for the project.

The industrial park is still looking for its first tenant.

Hill said something should happen before the end of the year.

“The prospect that we have right now is talking about a commitment date in the late part of 2008, so we’re on schedule,” Hill said. “We’re well within the timeframe of where we need to be.”

A lot has to be done at the site before the land becomes ready for an industry to move in. The land has to be cleared and an archaeological study must be conducted.

“This land that we purchased was a Bowater tree farm and there’s a lot of pine trees in there,” Hill said. “We got to clear the pine trees before the archaeological study can begin. Right now it’s like a thicket of pine trees and briars and it’s real hard to get in there.”

Any industry looking to locate at the park right now may also have to be willing to pay high insurance cost.

Officials stumbled for answers when asked about the area’s ISO rating.

Insurance companies use the rating to set premiums. On a 10-point scale, 1 is the best and 10 is the worst.

“I don’t know,” said Ruppe, when asked if she knew what the area’s rating was.

“I would assume up there it would probably be an 8 or a 9,” Hill said. “I don’t know that for a fact.”

The fire protection in the area is at least bad enough that an engineer told the park’s industrial board during a January meeting that water tanks will need to be installed at the park.

Other infrastructure in the area is also minimal, officials say.

“There is a water line here, and there’s electricity,” Farmer said. “Other than that we got a long way to go and a short time to get there, so we got to work hard.”

One of the pluses of the Plateau Partnership Park that officials have touted is the cooperation between the three counties.

The belief is that by being partners, federal and state government will look more favorably on the project, which could make it easier to obtain grants to improve the infrastructure.

Hill said that’s why talk of poor fire protection and insufficient infrastructure is irrelevant.

“Once we have a prospect and they agree to come here, we will access grants at the federal level and the state level to help improve the infrastructure out in that area,” Hill said.