Aerial view of the new site of the Tennessee College of Applied Technologies. The Blue Oval City site is seen in the background. (Montgomery Martin Contractors)

A member of ULI Memphis discusses the optimism for a new Ford Motor Company facility in Haywood County.

I’ve spent more time in Haywood County, Tennessee, over the past few months than I ever thought I would. My company, Montgomery Martin Contractors, just broke ground on the new Tennessee College of Applied Technologies in support of Blue Oval City, Ford’s new electric vehicle manufacturing campus.

I’ve spent a good bit of time in Stanton, downtown Oakland, downtown Brownsville, and on the massive construction site of the Ford and electric battery plants. The construction site, at almost six square miles (15.5 sq km), is a city in and of itself. The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development estimates that there will be around $5.6 billion in capital investments and over 33,000 direct or indirect jobs during construction. Once completed, the campus should employ close to 6,000 people.

Last week, I left my office in Memphis, Tennessee, one morning and drove to Haywood County once again. During the 45-minute drive down interstate 40, I passed mile after mile of the prototypical rural America: farmland interrupted only by the occasional billboard or highway gas station. Many of those billboards either welcomed Blue Oval City or were Blue Oval City saying hello right back. It was a weird silent conversation between two groups just getting to know each other. Looking across that vast, mostly undeveloped land, it was hard to imagine anything making a sizable impact to those communities anytime soon. However, history reminds us that the impact is coming and coming fast.

For the better part of two years, Blue Oval City has been the centerpiece of discussions regarding economic development in West Tennessee. The Memphis Chamber of Commerce has touted Ford’s investment as overwhelmingly transformational to our region. Large manufacturers consistently spur economic growth through the jobs they directly create and the ancillary services that support them. For Blue Oval City, it is estimated that the total economic impact will be the addition of $3.5 billion per year to Tennessee’s gross state product, which will generate over 27,000 new jobs. There is no question that Ford will create a seismic shift in our local and regional economy. And, with construction now well underway, the surrounding communities are actively preparing for the changes that will inevitably come.

The last time I was in Brownsville, I sat in Livingston’s Soda Fountain and Grill for lunch in the town square. The quaint diner was originally built in 1935 as a post office before being converted to Livingston’s Furniture in the 1970s. In 2021, the Pettigrew family bought the building and began renovating the old building into a diner. Six months into the renovations, the Blue Oval City news came out. As I sat and watched the busy servers move around the crowded lunchroom, I wondered who the other patrons were. Were they locals or just temporary transplants from the Blue Oval construction? Were the Pettigrews at the right place at the right time? What happens to Brownville’s picturesque town square if growth overtakes it?

These details are now what matter as the real work is just starting for the municipalities within the impact crater of the Ford Plant. How exactly are the surrounding communities going to react? And will they create places, not just for industry to thrive, but places where people want to live? Will the surrounding population get a say in how growth is planned, or will the Interstate 40 corridor between Memphis and Jackson simply become victim to unfettered sprawl?

As a lifelong Memphian, I have somewhat tempered optimism towards the investment in Blue Oval City. I also have my concerns about the impact of continued eastward expansion. The Ford plant is exactly one hour east of downtown Memphis; situated along Interstate 40 between Memphis and Jackson, the next largest municipality in West Tennessee. People from the Memphis core will inevitably migrate to these surrounding areas as the development grows to support them.

Just look at the suburb of Arlington as the barometer. At the 2000 Census, the population there was 2,569. By 2010, it had grown to 11,517. As of the 2020 Census, there are now roughly 15,000 people living there. Simultaneously, the Memphis population declined from 690,186 in 2000 to 628,127 in 2020. While the decline cannot be solely attributed to regional population shift, much of it can. The surrounding communities have become more competitive through newer home stock and the promises of better schools and safer communities. This shift will likely continue as the Ford plant comes on-line.

I am somewhat hopeful that new industry will attract workforce in-migration while also educating and employing those who are already here. However, we must be cognizant of the risks. For a city, which has invested so heavily in a revitalized downtown and urban core, a declining population and outward migration represent real challenges to ongoing investment.

Conversely, the expected suburban population growth represents real opportunities for our neighbors to the east. Many of these communities will find themselves in need of new housing, new infrastructure, and the services to support a growing population. How are the community leaders planning for these changes?

On February 21, the Memphis Chapter of ULI hosted a group of municipal leaders involved in the Blue Oval City development to discuss these anticipated changes. On hand were mayors from the towns of Arlington, Brownsville, Lakeland, and Stanton as well as representatives from the Greater Jackson Tennessee Chamber and the regional utility supplier, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The panel discussion was a deep dive into regional growth with the bulk of topics focusing on infrastructure needs in the region. The State of Tennessee and TVA were instrumental partners in the recruitment of Ford and are now investing heavily along the I-40 corridor to increase utility and transportation capacity. Within the jurisdictions of each municipality, similar investments are being made.

Yet, what was most notable and encouraging was the particular vernacular being spoken by these municipal leaders. They spoke at length about engaging planners to shape their growth in measured ways. They advocated for the culture of their communities and expressed strong desires to improve their quality of life without destroying their way of life. As examples, the mayor of Stanton, Allan Sterbinsky, iterated the importance of protecting the natural ecosystem of the Hatchie River, which runs through his county. William Rawls Jr., the mayor of Brownsville, outlined their ongoing process to develop a comprehensive plan as a framework for managed growth. These were community leaders proactively analyzing both the risks and rewards of new industrial development and the inevitable economic and community growth that will come with it. Even more encouraging was their spirit of cooperation for mutual benefit.

What eventually happens in West Tennessee once the Ford plant is open remains to be seen. There are still monumental challenges facing Memphis and its outlining areas. High crime, poverty, diversity disparities, and outward migration will not be remedied by one large suburban investment. In fact, Blue Oval City may even exacerbate some of our issues in the short term. Regardless, our local ULI leaders remain optimistic that intentional regional growth is the key to stronger communities and will eventually become the rising tide that lifts all boats.