The 1,350-acre site on its way to becoming a Volkswagen plant was once home to an ammunitions operation producing bombs that dropped on Germany during World War II. “The federal government sat on it for a long, long time and wouldn’t even talk about giving it up,” says Ron Littlefield, mayor of the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Starting in 1994 — “about four mayors ago,” as Claude Ramsey, the Hamilton County mayor, puts it — the city got serious about buying the land. The idea was to turn it into a “mega-site,” one that would offer a dream manufacturer, dazzled by the level ground, easy access to the interstate and two — count ’em — principal railroads. But that sort of manufacturer is hard to find in America these days. “We were under a tremendous amount of pressure to break up the site into lots,” says Ramsey, filling it with smaller enterprises and a big-box retailer or two. “But there wouldn’t have been enough family-wage jobs.”
The two mayors started making pilgrimages to the Detroit auto show, a contrarian move in many ways. Their lobbying got the attention of Toyota, which considered the site for a new plant but ultimately opted for Mississippi. It was a blow, financially and politically. At the 2009 auto show, they heard buzz about VW and got a packet about their city into Stefan Jacoby’s hands. He signaled interest and they went into overdrive, trotting out local business owners, CEOs, industrial suppliers, and academics, and showing off schools, homes, and amenities. There were lots of conferences and dinners — including one at which Senator Lamar Alexander treated visiting Germans to his rendition of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” — and aerial tours in helicopters lent by the Tennessee Valley Authority. But the abandoned site, overgrown with woods and etched with trails leading nowhere, was too much of a mess to evaluate.
Littlefield and Ramsey decided on a Thursday to raze the site. They asked the Germans to give them two weeks. By Friday afternoon, they had committed every worker and piece of equipment at their disposal to the site. “To put city and county employees on the same site is like putting two rival football teams on the same field and asking them to run in the same direction,” says Littlefield. “They’re used to competing for resources.” Ramsey adds, “We expected fistfights.” By Friday night, the governor had promised half a million dollars, and the county had approved emergency funds to hire independent contractors. Work started on Monday. Littlefield’s IT department set up a Webcam so the Germans could watch the progress. ” ‘Do you have a deal yet?’ the workers would ask us every day,” says Ramsey. When the Germans came back three weeks later, they were astonished. “There is no question that’s what won the business,” Jacoby says.
The $12 billion of economic value the VW presence is expected to deliver to Chattanooga has gone a long way in saving the mayors’ political hides. “There would have been headstones for us out there,” jokes Ramsey. Like many great combatants, the two are not-so-secretly friends. “We eat a lot of chicken together,” says Littlefield. They play their parts well. Littlefield has a background as a city planner; Ramsey was a farmer. “That’s why we get along so well,” says Ramsey. “He’s a planner and I’m a doer.” Their well-worn shtick has a sheen of affection. “I was in college during the height of the civil rights movement,” says Littlefield, who graduated from Auburn in 1968. “My heart was with a lot of the changes at that time.” “He was really a hippie,” Ramsey informs me. “No, I wasn’t,” Littlefield insists, though he does cop to owning a VW bus and a Bug as a young married man. “But they didn’t have flowers on them,” he says with a smile.