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The Year in Warren County Business 2019
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On hand April 26 for the ribbon cutting at Motlow’s new $5.5 million Automation and Robotics Training Center on Vo Tech Drive are, from left, Terri Bryson, Bob Rolfe, Jimmy Haley, Janice Bowling, Michael Torrence, Flora Tydings, Paul Sherrell, Larry Flatt and Ryle Chastain.

Drumroll please. The top 10 business stories of the year have been determined by the Southern Standard crew and are ready for public consumption, scrutiny and second-guessing.

Picking a top 10 in a year overflowing with business riches presented its own unique challenges. There wasn’t a dearth of business news, but rather an extravagance. You could almost call it a carnival of economic accomplishment, complete with beauty queens dazzling on the runway to vie for the crown of top business story.

So, in the words of Pink, let’s get this party started and take it from the top.

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Visitors discuss training opportunities while standing next to a robot at the grand opening of the Automation and Robotics Training Center.

1. Robotics center a gem

The state opened a portal into a new dimension of technology when it agreed to fund a $5.5 million Automation and Robotics Training Center in McMinnville.

The glorious new facility began offering classes in May and has brought workers to our community from throughout the nation who are looking to elevate their level of automation knowledge. The school is operating under the auspices of Motlow State Community College with credit and non-credit classes available. Larry Flatt is the executive director.

“There’s not another facility like this within a 500-mile driving distance,” said Dr. Flora Tydings, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, during the ribbon-cutting celebration in April. “We have to have our students trained for the jobs of today and the jobs that are coming. This will bring people from the entire country to take advantage of the training available at Motlow State.”

Robots have become an integral part of our entire workforce, not just automotive manufacturing. It was noted by two speakers at the grand opening ceremony it won’t be long before robots flip burgers

“We travel the globe to recruit these companies and at the end of the day it’s about automation,” said Bob Rolfe, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

Rolfe said robots don’t need to take breaks, or take vacations, and they perform as efficiently at 8 a.m. as they do at 8 p.m.

State Sen. Janice Bowling said it’s best to embrace the times rather than to fight change.

“Robots are going to be replacing people whether we like it or not,” said Bowling.

The Automation and Robotics Training Center is teaching people how to repair and program the robots that have become so integrated into our lives.

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Construction is underway for McMinnville first new hotel in nearly 30 years. Pictured at the groundbreaking ceremony for a 74-room Hampton Inn hotel on Sparta Street are, from left, Don Alexander, Jimmy Haley, Janice Bowling, hotel owner David Hunt and Paul Sherrell.

2. Hotel construction starts

Construction of a 74-room Hampton Inn hotel and retail development on Sparta Street has begun. Officially named “The Avenue of McMinnville,” it’s hoped the hotel will be open in 2020.

The massive investment by businessman David Hunt will be the first hotel built in McMinnville in nearly 30 years. Quality hotel space is widely considered one of Warren County’s most glaring needs, especially with a newfound emphasis on promoting tourism.

The new development is located across from Saint Thomas River Park Hospital. Hunt has designed the space so it can accommodate a second hotel, should the Hampton Inn perform up to occupancy expectations.

“If the Hampton Inn has a good occupancy rate in its first year, then we’ll proceed with construction of a Marriott,” said Hunt, who indicated his desired occupancy rate is 80 to 85 percent. “I think it will do well. There’s a need in this community.”

The Regional Planning Commission officially OK’d the project in July after a groundbreaking ceremony in April.  

“This is something that’s badly needed in Warren County,” said Regional Planning Commission member Rachel Kirby. “This will bring weddings back to town. This will being family reunions back to town. We don’t have a facility to accommodate such events. People are going out of town.”

The retail space in front of the hotel will feature a combination of stores and restaurants. Hunt has said one of the restaurants will offer Mexican fare.

3. IDB purchases industrial site

It’s not often the Industrial Development Board buys 218 acres for a new industrial site at a price of nearly $1 million. But that’s exactly what happened in May.

The IDB purchased the land, located right at the Coffee County line, for $981,000. The land is earmarked to be used as a massive industrial site for one tenant, not an industrial park, and has been named Elam Industrial Site for the family from which the land was purchased.

The thinking is Warren County is logistically positioned to attract a major employer due to our proximity to Nashville and Chattanooga. The property is as close to I-24 as you can get and still be in Warren County.

Right now the property is raw. It doesn’t even have water or electrical lines running to it. Because infrastructure will have to be put in place, the industrial site is viewed as a long-range project. It will be many years before a company eventually calls that land home, but IDB members are planning for the future and working to provide the framework to attract jobs.

This forward thinking deserves a round of applause.

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Warehouse Discount Groceries is owned by Jay Mitchell, left, and run by store director Jackson Lambert. The store opened in March.

4. New grocery store arrives

The spot that was formerly Foodland Plus was vacant for about six months before a new grocery store came riding in on its white stallion to save the day.

Warehouse Discount Groceries opened in March at one of McMinnville’s most visible retail locations on The Strip.

It’s the 28th store for third-generation grocer Jay Mitchell, who also operates a wholesale distribution network that provides grocery stock for many other stores his family does not own. 

Jackson Lambert is the local store director. 

“We have the best and the freshest meat in town. That’s our focus,” said Jackson. “We have butchers here on staff. If you have a personal order, we’ll be more than happy to cut anything you like. Just let us know.”

The store has a unique price structure as a cost plus 10 percent store. As Jay explains it, all the inventory on the shelves is marked at cost. When you get to the register, your items will be marked up 10 percent and that’s what you pay.

About 50 percent of the staff remains from the Foodland Plus days and the store is meeting, or perhaps meating, its sales expectations, according to management.

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Three Star Mall has been a popular topic of retail conversation. In 2019, the mall received a new manager in Sigourney Younglove in March and new ownership in August.

5. Mall excitement

Perhaps no retail outlet has been the topic of such widespread discussion as Three Star Mall. From a main entrance that looks like a road from a Third World country, to new ownership, to the upcoming departure of Goody’s, there has been much to talk about at the mall.

New ownership was announced in August when Monroe Retail Group bought the mall from Ershig Properties. The popular shopping spot has 225,000 square feet and includes anchors such as Kroger, JC Penney, J’s Restaurant and more.

It was also announced in August another mall anchor, Goody’s, would be changing its brand to Gordmans. Both Goody’s and Gordmans are owned by the same parent company, Stage Stores.

Stage Stores acquired Gordmans in 2017 and there are now roughly 150 Gordmans stores open across the country.

The store remains Goody’s for another month or so. The changeover is expected to take place in January or February.

Another new mall arrival in 2019 was McMinnville Civic Center’s workout facilities. With the Civic Center closed for renovation, the mall was the most feasible spot to accommodate the city’s fitness services.

The mall also received a friendly new face with the addition of new mall manager Sigourney Younglove, who took the reins in March. She seems to be enjoying the work and has the mall pointed in the right direction.

Speaking of direction, the one area of the mall motorists likely want to avoid is the main entrance, which has come to resemble more of an off-road haven than an appropriate entry point.

Sigourney says she’s been so concerned about the condition of the front entrance, she actually had a dream I would call and ask her about it for a story. So when I called to ask her about the front entrance for a story, I guess you could say I made her dreams come true.

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Ground work is underway for what will be a new Regions Bank location on The Strip. When the new branch opens, Regions will close its two other McMinnville locations.

6. Regions banking on new location

Dirt work is underway for what will be a new Regions Bank location on The Strip. The property is located across from Plaza Shopping Center next to Security Federal.

The facility will offer all the latest concepts in banking, feature plush landscaping, and really add a burst of vibrancy to what has been an empty lot for more than a year.

When the new bank office is complete, Regions will close its two current locations, both of which it’s renting. That includes the Regions locations at Plaza Shopping Center and the one on Court Square on the first floor of City Hall.

When Regions leaves downtown, it will mark the first time in decades a bank hasn’t occupied the spot that was long known as City Bank. The city of McMinnville owns the building and exact plans haven’t been finalized about what to do when the bank departs. There has been talk of moving city offices downstairs, but I haven’t heard of any concrete plans.

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Fred’s closed in May and Harbor Freight opened in October. It was a busy time for this building at Northgate Center.

7. Harbor Freight tools into town

The sadness of losing Fred’s didn’t last long. The chain closed 159 of its stores in May, including the one in McMinnville, representing 29 percent of its total store base.

But before cobwebs could start to form, Harbor Freight announced it was expanding to McMinnville with a new store that opened in October. This marks Harbor Freight’s 29th store in Tennessee. 

The local store offers 15,000 square feet packed with over 7,000 tools and accessories in categories including automotive, power tools, outdoor power equipment, generators, welding supplies, shop equipment, hand tools and more.

Harbor Freight’s hand tools come with a lifetime warranty. 

For more than 40 years, Harbor Freight has been a source for affordable tools. As legend has it, the company got its start in Southern California in 1977 when 17-year-old Eric Smidt began transforming his father’s small phone sales business into a successful mail-order company. 

In his first year, Eric bypassed the bothersome middle man everyone wants to avoid and cut deals directly with factories. He realized if he could buy tools directly for less, he could convey savings to his customers.

Local residents can now enjoy those savings.

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A McMinnville mainstay for 55 years, Village Car Wash was sold in 2019 and is getting a complete facelift.

8. Village washed away

Village Car Wash had been a fixture in McMinnville for 55 years, providing people a great place to wash their vehicles and a convenient spot to turn around while riding The Strip.

In July, the car wash came under new ownership as Wash ‘N Roll bought the land and has torn down many of the car wash bays.

A big feature of Wash ‘N Roll is its fully automated tunnel that’s equal parts light show, rock concert and car scrubber. It provides cleanliness and entertainment.

One emphasis of Wash ‘N Roll is monthly passes. These passes allow the user an unlimited number of car washes per month for one price. There will also be tons of vacuum space to get your car tidy inside and out.

Village Car Wash got its start in 1964 when it was founded by the late James Walling. He hooked up a couple pressure pumps and built what he claimed was the first self-serve car wash in the state of Tennessee.

Wash ‘N Roll is a growing company with plans to have 20 locations by the end of 2020.

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Huddle House

9. Old Captain D's sells again

Believe it or not, the old Captain D’s building has been vacant for three years now since the restaurant moved into its current location in December 2016.

In 2017, the old Captain D’s property was sold to an East Tennessee restaurant owner who announced plans to demolish the building and construct a new restaurant there. But after buying the property, he never followed through with those plans and the land remained in his ownership until earlier this month.

Huddle House bought the property for $360,000 and will allow the current building to remain standing. A massive renovation project is planned to give it a fresh, new look. 

Huddle House has more than 330 stores in 23 states. A company spokesperson says the 24-hour restaurant is expected to be open in the first quarter of 2020.

Known for its pancakes, omelets and other breakfast food, Huddle House has nearby locations in Sparta, Shelbyville and Baxter. 

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Stephanie McPeak, right, is the store manager of the new Dollar General on the corner of Sparta Highway and Crain Road which opened in August. She’s shown stocking Halloween treats with Janet Muse, the manager of Dollar General in Rock Island.

10. Dollar General strikes again

The prevailing logic that Warren County couldn’t support another Dollar General was given a kick to the stomach when not one, but two, new Dollar General stores opened here in 2019.

Perhaps I’m the only one keeping count, but we’re now up to 11 DGs in Warren County. The folks in Irving College would like that number to increase even more as I’m hearing cries from members of that community they would like a DG too.

For folks in rural areas, like Viola, I’m sure a DG makes a huge impact in their lives. It eliminates the pain of driving to town, or driving to another Dollar General, to buy staples like bread and cheese. 

I think everyone should enjoy the convenience of having a Dollar General just a few short miles from their kitchen.