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Manufacturing: Big additions boost region
by Mike Pare
Sunday, March 31, 2013    |   
A Volkswagen Passat moves through the assembly line at the Chattanooga manufacturing plant. The company is working to gain another model for production at the $1 billion facility.
A Volkswagen Passat moves through the assembly line at the Chattanooga manufacturing plant. The company is working to gain another model for production at the $1 billion facility.
Photo by John Rawlston.
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    Workers process orders on an assembly line in the Chattanooga Amazon fulfillment center.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

Amid the worst recession in decades, the Chattanooga area landed three of the biggest new business investments in its history during the past five years.

Two Germany-based corporate giants, Volkswagen and Wacker Chemical, picked the region for new billion-dollar-plus investments while the world’s biggest Internet provider, Amazon, selected two area sites for distribution facilities that brought the biggest employment boost from a new employer in the area in decades.

Volkswagen’s $1 billion auto assembly plant in Chattanooga, which started production in 2011, now employs more than 3,000 people. Frank Fischer, chief executive of VW’s operations in Chattanooga, said the plant produced 152,000 Passat midsize sedans in 2012, which was above the 145,000 planned. Also, exports of Passats outside America last year equaled about $400 million, the plant CEO said.

Fischer said the company’s experience making the award-winning Passat is a big chip in Chattanooga’s favor as it works to gain another model for production.

Up Interstate 75 just 26 miles from the VW plant, Wacker Chemical is building a $1.8 billion plant in Bradley County. That’s the biggest-ever single manufacturing investment in Southeast Tennessee. Munich, Germany-based Wacker plans to manufacture hyperpure polycrystalline silicon, a base product in solar power cells. The Bradley plant is its first solar cell production facility outside Germany.

Konrad Bachhuber, who is overseeing construction of the huge factory near Charleston, Tenn., said plans are to start up the production plant by mid-2015.

The company plans to employ about 650 people by that time. Wacker has joined with Chattanooga State Community College to train the company’s new workforce.

“They’ve got to be ready when we prepare for [plant] commissioning,” Bachhuber said.

Amazon has built two 1 million-square-foot distribution centers in the region. The company this past Christmas holiday season employed close to 5,000 people at its distribution centers in Chattanooga and Bradley County.

Combined with two other fulfillment centers in Tennessee, the company had about 9,000 workers in Tennessee during the holidays, Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman said.

Contact staff writer Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.