Another Volkswagen Moment — by Deborah Levine

The president of the Chattanooga area Chamber of Commerce opened the combination reception, celebration, and press conference at Chattanooga’s Hunter Museum on July 15, 2014. The online invitations had gone out only 24 hours earlier, but the room was packed with 800 people. It had been six years since I attended the announcement of the Volkswagen plant coming to Chattanooga in this room. This year was noteworthy because of the wrangling over union representation, politics, state funding, and various personality driven conflicts that would determine whether Volkswagen would build a second car here.

There were  articles featured weekly in local media about how  a decision from the German car manufacturer was imminent. Chattanooga can be forgiven for being a bit jaded, and more than a bit pessimistic about the possibility. Finally, the announcement that the new car was coming turned out to be true. The TN governor, senators, and local mayors were present to confirm it. The Volkswagen executives, from Germany and from Chattanooga, were present to celebrate the final decision.

I have attended Volkswagen launches and celebrations since the first one.  My presence on the site began when the headquarters were still located in downtown Chattanooga and consisted of a wild drive up and down the sandy hills ringed by an abandoned rail road tracks on what was once a US military ammunitions plant. The local government had rerouted the water running through it and workers were driving pylons into the ground to support the eventual factory. As editor of the American Diversity Report, and as a local resource for intercultural training of newly arrived Volkswagen executives, I was often on the site as it developed. I saw the ground breaking ceremony with fireworks, the Passat sedan kick off with the mini-Darth Vader, the now up-and-running rail road, and the openings of various sections of the growing plant. As exciting as each of these events were, few were as momentous, as highly anticipated, and as nerve-wracking as this one. It’s one thing to inaugurate; it’s another to maintain and grow.

The many speeches were filled with thank yous, high fives, acknowledgments, and couldn’t have done it without you comments. There were historical perspectives noting that 30 years ago there were no automobile jobs in Tennessee. There were accolades for the beauty of Chattanooga and the dedication of its workers. There were praises for the new car “a true American car made by Americans” and “a true Stunner,” is how the new midsize SUV was described.

The economic implications of the decision were underscored numerous times. There will be about 1,350 additional jobs at the plant to build the new SUV. There will be many more jobs coming as vendors from around the country locate themselves in Chattanooga area to serve the Volkswagen needs. Perhaps the most unexpected announcement, was the hundreds of jobs that would come to the area with the new research and development center planned for the site. While many in the audience were not quite sure what an R&D center would do, they were made aware that this took the Chattanooga project to another level, a level beyond manufacturing to the creation and designing of cars that had previously taken place at Volkswagen’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.

Last summer, there was a celebration of a different kind, a human launch. A dozen graduates of the Automation Mechatronics Program (AMP) promenaded through the Volkswagen Academy from the back stairs to the stage where a similar gathering of elected officials and Volkswagen chiefs waited to great them. Also present was Martina Stellmaszek, President/CEO of the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Southern U.S. The hopes for the future of our region was voiced by Ms. Stellmaszek, “By becoming the first program in the U.S. to be fully accredited by the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) together with the German American Chambers of Commerce (AHK USA), Volkswagen’s Automation Mechatronics Program is at the forefront of establishing quality standards for vocational training which will have a positive impact on local economies and communities.” Her hopes are also my hopes and I’m encouraged by the new R&D center.

There was an additional announcement concerning Volkswagen in the days following this new car celebration. Volkswagen will build a new information center in downtown Chattanooga. For those unfamiliar with our city, the actual Volkswagen site is a half hour drive from downtown. In the early days, Volkswagen executives had offices downtown, but after the first few years, those offices were moved to the actual site and there was no longer a presence downtown. It will feel both disorienting and very familiar to have that ongoing presence again.

The placement of Volkswagen physically at the center of Chattanooga again is symbolic of how central the company has been to the city and surrounding area. This is not just a matter of jobs and economic development. Let us be clear, not everyone has benefited yet economically from Volkswagen’s presence. There remains much work to be done in poor neighborhoods, communities of color, and in the public schools to broaden opportunities for the future. Having said that, the community investment and outreach of Volkswagen has boosted many forward-thinking projects.

One of the key areas of development in Chattanooga is an increased awareness of global competition, the value of manufacturing skills, and the centrality of a STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). The new stem high school, the partnerships with the community college, the growth of the technology grid of the city are remarkable achievements in a relatively short time. The interest in foreign languages, international travel, and internships with global companies existed at only a very modest level six years ago.

The ability of small businesses to be a vendor for Volkswagen continues to be a challenge. However, being a vendor to a vendor has given many small companies experience that have changed their trajectory. Still remaining is the challenge to include minority and women owned businesses in the progress being made. As a member of the Diversity Council of Volkswagen Chattanooga, I am well aware of the desire of the company to bring along our most vulnerable populations. As a consultant training interns for the City of Chattanooga’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, I am understand that the city itself is dedicated to a parallel course. All parties want to make Chattanooga a model global village of the South.

There was a small, touching moment at the recent celebration that will always stick in my mind. Chattanooga’s Mayor, Andy Berke, came down off the stage and into the audience, quietly leaving his entourage behind. He and I made our way to an elderly woman in the audience from opposite directions. Ruth Holmberg, former editor of The Chattanooga Times, civil rights champion, arts & culture leader of the city, is now in her nineties and confined to a wheel chair and oxygen tank. Yet, we smiled at each other, three generations dedicated to making a difference, three Jews invested in the Chattanooga, three hopeful civic leaders sharing a quiet moment. Who knew?!?


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