By Melanie D. Hayes
The Herald Bulletin
One of last year’s biggest economic development announcements in Anderson was the news that a 72-acre baseball and softball training and competition complex would be built along Interstate 69.
The Farm drew praise — that it would bring in visitors and money — and concerns that it could cost the city a lot of money and use prime real estate.
The $7.5 million complex is expected to host more than 70 tournaments a year and draw in 1,500 people per weekend, said Brad Benbow, a partner in the project. It is estimated that 10,000 rooms will be filled by visitors per year, he said.
The groundbreaking was in late October — more than six months past its original schedule. So far, construction hasn’t gone very far. Last year Benbow said that a significant portion of The Farm would be completed this spring and would be available for use for a meaningful portion this year.
During groundbreaking, Benbow said that a study showed that over 20 years The Farm will generate $500 million in economic impact for the city.
While the project was touted as an all-around win-win last year by the former city administration, the city’s new leadership doesn’t consider it a perfect project.
Private investors want the city to pay $6 million toward the project, even though the city would not be an owner, said Greg Winkler, the interim economic development director. The city is not comfortable having taxpayer money cover so much of the project, and then also be financially responsible for it if it fails, he said.
“It is still in negotiation,” Winkler said. “The city’s intention is to construct an agreement that protects the city’s and the taxpayer’s interest.”
In the meantime, Winkler has several other plans for economic development in the city, now that he is back in the role he held during Mayor Kevin Smith’s first term. He hopes to work together with the Anderson City Council, the Corporation for Economic Development and other entities to bring jobs to the city.
The industries that Winkler is targeting are food processing, IT communications and data storage, since Anderson has the amenities that those types of companies seek, as shown with calling centers and Nestlé that chose to locate and expand here.
There are two parts of the world that he is focusing on — China and Europe, specifically Germany and northern Italy.
Those areas have been chosen because of the relationship Anderson already has with officials there, and because of the market activity in those countries.
“China desperately wants access to U.S. markets to manufacture here,” Winkler said. “We established a relationship with China under Smith’s first administration, and (former economic development director) Linda Dawson and (former deputy mayor) Greg Graham continued it.”
As far as the European companies, their interest in the United States is they can produce and manufacture items here cheaper than they can at home due to the Euro to U.S. dollar exchange rate.
Traveling to make direct contacts with potential companies will continue to be a part of the economic development strategy for the city, Winkler said. But the city also has plans to bring foreign business people to Anderson.
Construction of new buildings — industrial, commercial and residential — has also been on the move this year. About 19 percent more construction permits were issued in January and February compared to those months last year, said Frank Owens, director of the city’s municipal development.
The rise could be partly due to the mild winter temperatures this year being more conducive to construction, but Owens still sees it as a good sign.
“It makes me happy,” he said. “If the first two months have gone this way I wonder what we can do the next 10 months this year.”
So far this year, the city announced in January that TeleServices Direct will open a call center at the Flagship Enterprise Center and bring 180 jobs that will pay about $10 to 15 an hour.
Two more job announcements are expected to be made in April. Two unnamed companies — one new one and one expanding — will each be bringing about 20 new jobs to the city, Winkler said.
Winkler said that Anderson has tremendous opportunity, but it has a long way to go.
“Anderson is like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces scattered around,” he said. “You can see the picture, but there are so many pieces that still have to be put together.”