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VOL. 127 | NO. 180 | Friday, September 14, 2012

New Plants Point to Infrastructure Needs

By Bill Dries

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Greater Memphis Chamber leader Dexter Muller is fond of recounting how hard it was to sell the Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park to site consultants for manufacturing companies.

The only way to get to the land off Riverport Drive to show it to prospects was by helicopter. That led to questions about how the company’s workers and goods might get in and out by land. That prompted Muller, the chamber’s senior vice president of community development, to quickly add that local leaders were working on the access problem.

The problem was solved with the extension of Paul R. Lowry Road.

But when Mitsubishi Electric Power Products Inc. executives broke ground on their new plant during the historic flooding along the river in the summer of 2011, there were still some parts of the road that required a bit of gravel from the city to keep them completely dry.

A tour this week of the Electrolux and Mitsubishi plant construction sites for local elected leaders was also a look at the ongoing infrastructure needs of an area that is already busier. By this time next year both plants should be open and it will be even busier.

“Our message as a Memphis community is that when you come here, not only can you manufacture it,” Muller said, “you’ve got more choices and flexibility on modes of transportation, seaports that are served, than most other cities in the country.”

The bus tour took the group along the two access roads. They are the only roads in and out that are two lanes in places, four lanes in others, and already bearing a lot of truck traffic.

After the end of the construction workday at the Electrolux site, truck traffic at the nearby Canadian National Railway Co.’s Harrison Yard was still thick.

Meanwhile, to the west work continues on the West Mallory Avenue interchange with Interstate 55.

It is considered the entrance to the industrial park and until the Tennessee Department of Transportation project began wasn’t up to even the demands of existing truck traffic.

“We couldn’t have developed all that you see down there without the Mallory interchange being done,” Muller added. “There were a lot of challenges. It was a really tight interchange. There wasn’t much room around it. … It’s getting close.”

The interchange should be ready next year by the time both the Electrolux and Mitsubishi Electric Power Products plants are open.

Adam P. Roberts, project manager for Electrolux, said the main part of the plant should be open by the end of the year not counting all of the equipment still to come as product lines are introduced one at a time.

The Memphis plant will make wall, slide-in and freestanding ovens of various sizes.

“That’s vanilla,” Roberts said, referring to the Springfield, Tenn., plant that makes only freestanding ranges. “This is like the 36 flavors of Baskin-Robbins.”

Not too far away on Riverport Road, the Mitsubishi plant won’t turn out nearly the numbers the Electrolux plant will in terms of units. But its units will be huge electric transformers and generators each weighing hundreds of tons. The plant on Riverport will operate at a completely different scale than Electrolux or the neighboring Nucor steel plant when it opens in April.

“It’s not going anywhere,” Ken Badaracco, Mitsubishi Memphis general manager, said as he stood to one side of the massive plant blueprint.

Badaracco noted that the transformers and electrical equipment are too large for Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division to use for its needs.

The schematic drawings for the Mitsubishi plant take up an entire wall of a trailer where the construction is being managed.

He pointed to the part of the drawing for the 13-story testing hall and later took the group to the massive structure that is the end of the assembly line for the electrical equipment and the beginning of testing as well as the journey to market.

The structure comes with a 500-ton crane that will lift the disassembled but still massive transformers onto rail cars on a line that will run directly into the structure. The rail line runs near an offshoot of the Mississippi River. And Mitsubishi officials built the testing hall where it is with an eye toward being able to have a port facility there to load the equipment onto barges by going just a few yards farther.

“Obviously, you can’t move an 800,000-pound piece of equipment on a truck. You’ve got limits on interstate highways,” Muller said later. “Being able to use the river and the rail is a huge opportunity for them. Being able to have both of them allows them to have flexibility.”

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