Approximately 200 guests sat amidst colorful kayaks and children’s playsets to celebrate the Aug. 10 opening of Knox County’s largest industrial facility. The newly-expanded, 720,000 square-foot facility now serves as headquarters for the East Coast operations of Lifetime Products, the world’s leading manufacturer of blow-molded plastic products.
The Utah-based company plans to produce its watersports line, including kayaks and paddleboards, along with outdoor children’s play-sets at the Eastbridge Business Park facility. The new manufacturing and distribution center helps meet increased customer demand globally and is expected to have an estimated total economic impact of $184 million and create 1,261 direct and indirect new jobs for the region.
“We spent over a year researching different locations on the East Coast. After meeting with the local, state, and economic groups, Tennessee was obviously the best option,” said Richard Hendrickson, president and CEO of Lifetime Products, Inc. “We are excited to facilitate the creation of U.S. manufacturing jobs and opportunities for the people of the Knoxville area and the state of Tennessee.”
2014: THE SEARCH
Lifetime Products officially began its search for an East Coast facility in Nov. 2014 with, according to Hendrickson, three primary requirements: ability to get product to the East Coast in an efficient, cost-effective manner; cost-effective, dependable utilities; and dependable, hard-working people.
The state of Tennessee received the company’s request for information, in part, thanks to the recommendation of another global manufacturer who recently expanded their operations to Knox County – Fresenius Medical Care North America.
“Many regions tout the assets they have in place to support manufacturing companies,” said Doug Lawyer, vice president of economic development for the Knoxville Chamber. “But only one region is the geographic hub for three major interstates, sits at the junction of major east-west and north-south railway hubs, offers low-cost river transports, and provides access to a national lab and respected research university.
“These assets along with the collaboration between our state and regional economic development partners, elected officials, and utility companies are crucial to assuring prospective companies that the support from our community won’t disappear after their doors are open.”
State and local officials collaborated on their response to the information request from Lifetime Products, code named “Project Holston.” The company’s search committee received responses from 15 different sites across three states, and following initial visits, narrowed their options to the former General Electric building in Knox County’s Eastbridge Business Park and an empty, industrial warehouse in Tupelo, Miss.
While Knoxville, Tenn. officials were optimistic about meriting a place on the company’s short list, they still faced significant challenges. The Mississippi property already met the project’s building and rail spur specifications, while the former GE plant required a substantial capital investment to retrofit and expand. Additionally, the site needed direct rail access, meaning Norfolk Southern Railway had to agree to construct and connect a rail spur servicing the building.
“We [Knoxville] had a World’s Fair here in 1982, and there was a train track going through it,” said Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett. “People said, ‘we’ll get them [Norfolk Southern Railway] to move that,’ but they didn’t. They helped us here, though, and moved some train track for this facility, and we’re tickled to death about that.
“They’re [Lifetime Products] about what we’re about here in East Tennessee. They’re about family. They’re about faith. They’re about working together, and I’m just delighted to be a small part of it.”
2015: THE SELECTION
Burchett and other officials, including Gov. Bill Haslam, played an integral part in recruiting Lifetime Products to the region.
As the company continued to weigh their decision, local officials along with representatives from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Knoxville Utilities Board (KUB), The Development Corporation of Knox County (TDC), Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD), Innovation Valley Partnership, and the Knoxville Chamber marketed the region through steady communication and joint meetings with the project leads.
These meetings included a trip to Lifetime Products’ Clearfield, Utah facility, as well as an additional visit to Knoxville by company executives in Sept. 2015.
“Persuading Lifetime that Innovation Valley, specifically Knox County, was the best place for them to locate, even though a move-in ready option existed elsewhere, would not have been possible without the participation of our state and regional partners,” said Lindsay Hammill, director of economic development for the Knoxville Chamber.
“We all know that Knoxville is a great place to live, work, and play; and the main thing that makes it great are the people. The consistent, collaborative effort from the people involved in this project – from Gov. Haslam and Mayor Burchett to TVA and KUB to Norfolk Southern – demonstrated to Lifetime Products what we already know – there is no better place to locate than Innovation Valley and East Tennessee.”
On Nov. 20, 2015, after a year of searching, Lifetime Products announced its intention to locate their manufacturing and distribution facility in Knox County.
“This new East Coast factory is a landmark accomplishment for us as a company,” said Hendrickson. “This expansion is essential to our company’s continued efficient growth and will strengthen our ability to create opportunities for people all around the world, and specifically here in Tennessee.”
2016 & 2017: THE SITE
On May 25, 2016, Hendrickson returned to Knoxville; donned a hard hat, appropriately embellished with a Power T; climbed behind the controls of an excavator; and broke ground on the company’s $115 million facility.
Just over a year later, Hendrickson was back to cut the ribbon and officially begin production of Lifetime products in East Tennessee.
“We love the fact that you’re going to make things here,” said Gov. Haslam. “You [Lifetime Products] talk about how important it is that things are made in America. There’s this idea that we don’t make things here anymore, and it’s just dead wrong.”
“I always love talking about economic development,” said Mayor Burchett. “People always ask what we’re doing in Knox County, and without a doubt there’s one of those white, long tables where the refreshments are, and I’ll say,’ – look at that little, rectangular label that says Lifetime. That’s going to be made right here in our hometown.’”
THE FUTURE: WHY IT MATTERS
As production at Lifetime Products’ Knox County facility ramps up, it is also expected to bring $58.5 million in new wages per year with an average wage of $37,000 annually.
“When we announce a new company is relocating to Knoxville or an existing industry has decided to expand their business, anyone without a direct connection to the parties involved may not always understand why it matters to them,” said Lawyer. “But the fact is, if new business or business growth creates new jobs for our region, everyone wins.
“These new employees have wages to spend, and they’ll spend them at restaurants, barber shops, and other businesses in our community. Growth for one member of our regional business community generally signifies growth for the rest of business community as well.”
Additionally, the relocation of a company to a region often generates buzz among others who are also searching for a new place to call home.
“We [TVA] are pleased you [Lifetime Products] have chosen this particular location because it is already drawing additional interest in Eastbridge Industrial Park,” said Bill Johnson, president and CEO of TVA, at the ribbon cutting ceremony. “The second best thing to having Lifetime here is to have a neighbor behind them, and one beside them, to create even more jobs and investment.”
As state and regional agencies continue to partner on recruiting companies to Tennessee and Innovation Valley, Lawyer said the most important thing the public can do is pass any leads on to their local economic development professional.
“Direct leads can be really powerful,” he said. “The public is our eyes and ears on the street. If someone hears of a company with the potential for job growth, call us. We have resources that can help, no matter the size of the expansion.
“Companies naturally flow through the business life cycle, so learning about expansions and involving our team in that process is key to keeping our pipe-line full and our recruiting efforts relevant. If you don’t maintain a full pipeline of possibilities to fill your business parks and grow your local economy, your community doesn’t have a future.”