Gov. Bredesen (closest), convening his task force for the first time, in March
In the wake of yesterday's Hemlock Semiconductor investment news, Gov. Phil Bredesen this morning asked a task force of volunteers to focus more of its energy on landing more jobs for Tennesseans.
Bredesen's mandate for the group didn't come after gazing into a crystal ball.
Rather, comments today by Bredesen and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber during a meeting of the Governor's Task Force on Energy Policy suggest that specific companies are already "in the pipeline" for new investment here, and existing in-state companies may also be targeted for expansion.
Asked by VNC for comment on that supposition, Kisber replied this afternoon, "The announcement by Hemlock Semiconductor truly places Tennessee among the leading states in the production of clean energy technologies. Governor Bredesen and I view this facility as an 'anchor', allowing our state to market itself to other companies operating in a sector of the economy growing by a 30%-40% annual rate. As a result of Hemlock's decision, we've gotten the attention of other companies in this sector and our job now is to make them aware of Tennessee's top business climate and productive workforce."
During this morning's session, Kisber said Tennessee's recent experience in recruiting Volkswagen and Hemlock give the state more knowledge than at least 45 other states regarding the needs of key industries, and that knowledge represents a competitive advantage that must be used, quickly.
Kisber also mentioned as leverageable some companies already in the state, including Sharp, AFG Glass and Ericsson. Sharp makes solar panels at a plant in the Memphis area.
That impression of additional investments-in-waiting is reinforced by Ed Nelson (at left), the former honorary consul general of Japan in Nashville, and the founder and CEO of Nelson Capital. Hemlock is a joint venture between Dow Corning and two Japanese companies.
Nelson told VNC yesterday that at times during the 2-years-plus effort to recruit Hemlock he was privy to developments along the way. That left him, Nelson said, with the understanding that "there are a couple of other companies that had been thinking about moving to Tennessee, and have not moved" anywhere yet, due in part to economic conditions. He said he suspects there'll be action involving those companies within the coming year.
Bredesen's declaration of his intensive focus on recruiting more "green"-sector jobs during the remaining two years of his second term led him this morning to sidestep lengthy discussion of longer-term remedies and opportunities put forward by the task force, in order to press for recommendations designed to attract or create new jobs.
"I've got two more years here [as governor] and I'd love to have two more Hemlocks here, and I want to know how I get that done," the governor told his task force.
Bredesen told the group assembled in the State Capitol that while education, training, business incubation, conservation and other issues are important long-term, he wants the group to come up with a short-term strategy for recruiting manufacturers and other companies he believes will now be rapidly considering Tennessee and competing states for capital investment.
Similarly, when told of imminent clean-tech initiatives being developed by the administration of President-Elect Barack Obama, Bredesen said he is skeptical that any federal program, alone, is likely in the near term to help Tennessee improve its economy or increase its competitiveness.
Bredesen pressed task force members for specific ideas on how best to leverage the presence of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which he views as uniquely positioning the state for industrial investments of all kinds.
Bredesen (at right, with policy aide Will Pinkston) made clear, also, that he is resistant to anything approximating establishing an "Energy Czar" to manage the state's energy-related initiatives, but acknowledged the task force's concern about state capacity to manage effectively the anticipated stream of new federal energy funding initiatives, which are expected to flow quickly to states that can demonstrated their preparedness. (Photo by Jed DeKalb, State of Tenn.)
Responding to a reporter's question during a break from this morning's proceedings, Bredesen insisted he was neither frustrated nor disappointed with the work of the task force. Rather, he said, he wants the group to devise more strategic and immediately actionable strategems.
Nonetheless, at several points during this morning's meeting, Bredesen alluded to the recommendations before him as "hobby stuff" and typical of the "laundry lists" that such task forces often generate.
He several times indicated he saw the group's education, awareness and related proposals low-impact and perhaps overly "ideological," and falling short of addressing more pressing needs and opportunities, such as, in an apparent reference to training that will be provide the Hemlock workforce, training workers to "grow crystals."
At one point, the governor conceded that perhaps he'd asked the task force to report "a meeting too soon," implying they should have been provided more time and perhaps guidance regarding priorities.
Several task force members acknowledged the importance of creating jobs, and said that in the course of their work, an inherent "tension" between short- and longer-term focuses had been recognized. Without relinquishing their interest in the "greener" ideas they submitted, the group readily agreed to sharpen their focus on jobs.
Kisber (at left) added that, in the interest of speed and constrained resources, the challenge is to take the best ideas, then "boiling them down to two or three things we can do tomorrow." Kisber also stressed the importance of improving training in specific manufacturing processes.
Lightening the tone of the meeting, the governor smiled as he assured the task force he appreciated their work and said jokingly he accepted their report "with an asterisk," meaning he expects them to return to him a more powerful set of recommendations.
Meanwhile, the governor told reporters his Jobs Cabinet and ECD will also consider the same strategy assignment he has assigned the task force.
This morning's meeting was also the occasion for the formal release of Executive Order 59, requiring state government's use of efficient Energy Star equipment and appliances. Energy Star is a federal program designed to promote energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. ♦