A plan to lure a major automaker to East Tennessee passed another pivotal step Monday.
Jefferson County commissioners voted 14 to four, with one abstention, to give the county's megasite project $442,000. The money will be used to further study the viability of a megasite in Jefferson County.
"Now, we'll go through the process of doing the studies, identifying any environmental issues, seeing what the bedrock's like, seeing what the topography's like, we'll walk the property, so that [we] can more concretely say, 'yeah, this plan makes sense,' or 'no, we need to tweak it," said Garrett Wagley, director of economic development for the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber believes a megasite, west of the I-40/I-81 interchange, could bring 5,000 jobs to the area.
Many opponents of the project were also at the Jefferson County courthouse Monday for the vote and they came out of it a little hopeful as well.
Commissioners also agreed that eminent domain should not be used to forcibly remove residents from their land. Instead, landowners will be able to decide whether they want to invoke eminent domain on themselves so that they can receive three years of capital gains tax breaks when they decide to sell their property.
Oliver Wood, whose family owns a 590-acre farm where the proposed megasite would go, told 10News he is disappointed the project is still alive, but also pleased eminent domain is off the table.
"For someone to come in and say 'we're going to take your property for private gains' is just wrong," he said.
However, Wagley maintains there was never any intention to use eminent domain in the first place.
Either way, the push to bring a certified megasite to Jefferson County is building steam. Organizers announced Monday night 10 people have signed contracts that will give them the option to sell their land once an automaker agrees to come to the county. The chamber said another five people have also expressed interest in signing such contracts.
Overall, those property owners represent 400 of the 1,800 acres needed in accordance to the proposed megasite concept plans.
"We are only asking for option agreements at this stage," Wagley said. "Those options would not be exercised until an auto manufacturer agrees to sign a contract with Jefferson County."
Wagley said county leaders have yet to actually talk to a manufacturer about coming to Jefferson County. However, he said more than a dozen car companies have publicly expressed their intentions to expand.
And, when questioned as to why Jefferson County should pursue a megasite when other communities' similar projects continue sit empty, Wagley said it comes down to geography. He told a commissioner that megasites in the Appalachians tend to do fairly well because they are better positioned to serve domestic companies west of the mountain range and international companies who access the country from the east.