Pellissippi Place’s mini-Silicon Valley aspirations need a lot of things at this point: committed developers, companies that definitely want to move there, a lot of money.
The mostly empty patch of land off Old Knoxville Highway is dedicated to a future mixed-use community for technology-focused businesses and has been in the works since it broke ground in 2008.
But one thing it doesn’t have yet is enough power to supply what its designers refer to as a “technology park.”
That’s why Alcoa City Manager Mark Johnson announced in an Oct. 25 city manager’s workshop that he had ordered a brand new substation dedicated almost exclusively to Pellissippi Place businesses.
“If the park is fully fulfilled with tenants, then it would require a new electrical substation to feed that,” Alcoa Electric Director Ryan Trentham said in a phone interview.
“From back history until now, we haven’t really put much design or thinking into the substation, but as we’re starting to get a little more interest in the park, we’re wanting to make sure our ducks are in a row as far as any costs,” he added.
Trentham said the city is in the preliminary stages of talking with consultants and economic development advisers, trying to figure out exactly how much power Alcoa would need to funnel to the area.
Because plans to build a new substation are little more than an idea currently, nothing is set in place. That includes financing and a definitive location.
But Trentham said there are at least placeholders for some of these significant details. For instance, he was able to talk about a potential Alcoa address for the substation.
“Right now, the site in mind is directly adjacent from our water treatment plant over off of Sam Houston School Road,” Trentham said, adding he thinks the land was reserved for the R&D park. The plant essentially sits in Pellissippi Place’s backyard, no more than half a mile north from the only tech development company in the area already, Pro Nova Solutions.
“That’s the spot that we’re kind of dialed in on now,” Trentham said.
Funding is another question entirely. Substations are expensive, with a single transformer alone costing around $1 million. Trentham said the Pellissippi station probably would have two.
Construction on Maryville’s new substation along U.S. Highway 321, which is currently in progress, will cost around $5 million, for reference.
Several companies from “out West” have showed interest in the area, Trentham said. The accessibility to McGhee Tyson Airport and the interstate highway leading directly to Oak Ridge are among the many draws of the land.
But until commitments move forward and designers can get a reasonable idea of how much power the area will need, the cost to Alcoa is still up in the air.
Trentham emphasized the Pellissippi Place R&D park has been in the works since before his time, but he talked about how the vision for development in the area has shifted since 2008.
“I think that the plans and the ideas behind it have probably changed over time,” Trentham said. “I think when it was first formed, there was a lot of hype and a lot of big talk on it, thinking that it was going to take off real fast, and it hasn’t.”
That may have been the fault of timing. Pellissippi Place and other Alcoa projects like Springbrook Farm were ripe for development before the recession struck and took the wind out of the city’s economic sails.
Since its birth, Pellissippi Park has run the gamut of economic peaks and troughs. It has been able to secure one technology-oriented business in Pro Nova, a cancer treatment technology facility. Its main, four-lane thoroughfare complete with no less than three roundabouts is lined with streetlights and young trees and headed by an impressive lit sign that changes colors at night.
But currently, the area is mostly used by joggers, dog walkers, herds of deer and the occasional Pro Nova commuter.
Until it gets the enthusiasm and electric power it needs to move forward, it will continue to be a quiet patch of land at the dead end of Pellissippi Parkway.