SNEEDVILLE – It was a celebration and ribbon-cutting for a new employer in Hancock County that local, state, and federal officials agreed was much needed .. and very much appreciated.
A large crowd gathered Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, for the Grand Opening of Allied Dispatch Solutions’ new Sneedville Call Center, whose telephone operators answer emergency calls for roadside assistance from all over the United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada.
Bob Rolfe, Tennessee’s Commissioner of Economic and Community Development, dubbed the call center – which came about as a result of the Project 95 Initiative in Hancock County – a “great success”.
“At ECD, our job is to recruit companies to our state,” he said. “Our second job is to make sure that companies that call Tennessee home stay here and are happy, and when they prosper and expand, that the state is here to help them.”
The call center project came about in a very unique way, Rolfe said.
“Historically, when a company looks at Tennessee, we show them every asset we have and then its up to the company to pick a home and its up to a community to recruit that company,” Rolfe said. “Today, we have done it just the reverse, we flipped the script.”
About three years ago, he said, there was an opportunity to work with “one of the least prosperous communities in our state and let’s dream .. what if we did something different”, adding that County Mayor Thomas Harrison, who spoke later in the program, would talk more about how it all came to be.
It was about 18 months ago, he said, that Allied Dispatch made the announcement, with then-Gov. Bill Haslam and local officials, that it would bring about 100 new jobs to Sneedville.
Allied Dispatch Solutions’ Chairman Scott Libertore said he continues to be amazed to watch at “nothing” become “something”, waving his hand at the spacious new building that occupies a site where one was an open field.
“We plan on many, many years of growth and expansion in this community and we really appreciate that you supported us,” he said. “We are just dumbfounded at how excited we are and how quickly we were able to put this together. Its not a dream, its reality.”
Rolfe added that Allied Dispatch is a great employer in Tennessee, with more than 300 people on the payroll at its Johnson City office alone.
Gov. Bill Lee, a farmer and businessman from rural Tennessee himself, has worked tirelessly since taking office in January to make sure that all communities in Tennessee, including those smaller, more-rural counties like Hancock, are included at the table when it comes to bringing new jobs and prosperity, Rolf said.
“Thank you very much for investing in this project,” Lee said to Allied officials who were gathered for the event. “I celebrate with the company and this community today because what’s happening right here, is something that I think is everything right with what we need to be doing going forward. I have a belief that what happens in rural Tennessee matters to every single Tennessean.”
Lee said when he became governor, it was a privilege for him to sign Executive Order #1, which ordered every department within state government to provide him with an statement of impact on how each department’s operations impact rural Tennessee, and then, six months later, to give him a strategic plan on how those agencies planned to positively impact those rural communities.
“What’s happening here is what needs to happen all over Tennessee,” he said. “Its bringing meaningful jobs to a rural community that needs meaningful jobs. Really, what it does is it changes peoples’ lives.”
Lee drew laughs when he joked that the first time he drove his RV into Hancock County for a campaign stop, “about four people showed up”.
“The reason I wanted to be here today is to see something that I hope to duplicate all over this state, and that is, opportunity for people to have access to a good job, good schools, and safe neighborhoods,” he said.
Lee said that all of the planning for the new center took place prior to his becoming governor.
“I’m not here to take credit or praise for any of that,” he said. “I’m here to thank all of the people who were responsible for putting this together. There’s a reason why this company came here … they know the quality of the workforce here, they know the work ethic, they know the value system.”
The Bluegrass Pride Band from East Tennessee State University – which includes a guitar player from Sneedville, Wesley Wolfe – performed before and after the ceremonies, and also led the crowd in singing “happy birthday” to Gov. Lee.
Hancock Co. Mayor Thomas Harrison gave a timeline of how the Project 95 Initiative resulted in the establishment of the new call center.
In 2010 when he was campaigning for the office, he said, the two things that people talked about most were the lack of jobs and a lack of activities for young people.
“In the fall of 2010, I was lucky enough to be elected,” he said. “I had been in office for two months when the last manufacturing plant shut down, brought me the keys to the building, and, other than county government, that was the last jobs that were here.”
Harrison said he “immediately began thinking, what can I do, who can I call?”
The mayor said his first calls were to the regional economic development district.
“We had some plans and we met several times in Nashville, and we were there for another meeting and were standing in the lobby after the meeting and Allen Borden (a member of the ECD team) said, you know, in your area, a call center wouldn’t be unheard of, where the roads are difficult to navigate and its hard to start-up manufacturing. He said it was something to think about and that’s where the idea stemmed from.”
Harrison said that he and Jessie Royston travelled “many miles” over the coming months, and met with engineers and others to come up with a plan and cost estimate on a building for a new call center, or possibly renovating an existing building.
“We didn’t have an appointment, didn’t have an exact plan, but later on that fall at the Governor’s Conference, I ran into Allen again and told him I had put together some ideas. The conference was going on and they all had a full agenda, but I asked him if there was a chance that we could get some time with the Governor and ECD while we were in Nashville and pitch an idea.”
Borden said “give me a few minutes and I’ll get back with you,” Harrison explained. “Forty-five minutes later he said, if you can get everyone else together, we’ll meet upstairs. That’s where we pitched our idea and that’s where all of this came from.”
Hancock County, for years, has had one of the highest, if not the highest on many occasions, unemployment rates in the state, and being served by no in-county airport, riverport, or four-lane highway has resulted in many missed opportunities for the community, officials said.
With the idea firmly planted in fertile soil, Harrison said that an engineer and an architect were brought on board and county officials were prepared to see what grants were available and to borrow the rest from Rural Development.
But ECD officials, Harrison said, “came up with some ‘outside the box’ thinking and pulled a fast one on me .. . through Community Development Block Grants that normally are not used for buildings, and through the Appalachian Regional Commission, came up with 95 to 96 percent of the total building cost, which is unheard of.”
Harrison read aloud a list of names of people whom he said had been instrumental in making the project happen.
“I want all of you to know that we thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, and what a difference this amount of capital at one time in Hancock County has made,” he said. “You listened to us, we were heard, and now that we’re finished, we want to thank these people.”
Money that could not be obtained through grants was borrowed through the USDA’s Rural Development office, Harrison said.
And while the project didn’t begin under Lee’s leadership, Harrison said that the new governor signing off on the executive order that gives hope to distressed counties “speaks volumes for your vision for Hancock County”.
Harrison also thanked members of the Hancock Co. Commission and other local elected officials for their support.
The new jobs have meant much to the local economy, he added, “by giving families hope” and “adding new sales tax revenues for our county”.
“And I think this is only the beginning,” Harrison concluded.
Tim Thompson, Co-Chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission, spoke on how that federal agency’s $500,000 grant helped the project to move forward.
“You all came up with an idea and you worked hard to find the funding,” he said. “I commend you for that collective leadership.”
He also commended Gov. Lee for his attentiveness to the unique needs of Appalachian communities.
Thompson said that one of the ARC’s priorities is helping to develop better broadband internet access in rural communities so that they can, in turn, attract more businesses and industry.
Joe Woody, USDA Rural Development’s Knoxville Area Director, said that one thing he has learned about working with Mayor Thomas Harrison is that “he cares”.
“When we got here today, he told me, hey, here’s our next project, so he’s already looking ahead,” Woody said. “He doesn’t know what the word ‘loan’ means but he sure understands ‘grant’, so we’re gonna try to help him out with that in the future!”
Founded in 2014, Allied Dispatch Solutions has become one of the nation’s leading roadside assistance companies.
Today, it operates 24/7 and handles more than three million calls annually from its facilities in Washington, Carter and Hancock counties.
The company is currently accepting applications for employment at the Sneedville call center, and for more information, persons may visit their website, www.allieddispatch.com, or send a resume to firstname.lastname@example.org.