Volkswagen’s emissions control cheating scandal continues to snowball. In one U.S. city, the German automaker’s troubles are treated like local news. For now, Chattanooga, Tennessee, is vowing to stand by VW.
To Tennessee, Volkswagen is more than a relatively new employer. The company’s decision to build its only American plant in the state was treated like history in the making. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker was visibly emotional at the grand opening in 2011.
“The greatest moment in my public career was receiving the call from the Volkswagen Group that they were coming to Chattanooga,” said Corker, who is the city’s former mayor.
Corker now drives a Volkswagen. So does the city’s new mayor and hundreds of residents have chosen to support VW by buying a car. Lifelong Chattanooga resident Cindy Williams traded in her pickup truck for a Tennessee-made Passat in 2012.
“I just felt like they are our hometown company. Let’s see what they’ve got,” she said.
VW brought more than the 1,500 jobs and a billion dollar plant to town. The company brought it’s trend-setter status along with it.
The manufacturing facility, built with the help of $577 million in taxpayer support, includes a giant solar farm, a rainwater collection system and other environmental bells and whistles that helped it achieve LEED certification.
But while the auto plant is green, turns out the diesel cars VW was building are not.
“We’ve used them as a beacon to promote what we’re doing in Tennessee, and that’s why it’s so disruptive and disappointing,” said state Sen. Bo Watson, whose district includes the plant.
Schools have launched technology programs in partnership with VW, and the company is building a welcome center right on the riverfront.
Watson has called on Volkswagen officials to appear at a hearing in Chattanooga later this month. He wants guarantees that VW will keep building cars in Tennessee. Just in the last few weeks, the state sent the company another $168 million to subsidize a plant expansion underway now.
“I think we owe it to the citizens of Tennessee to ensure that our investment is safe,” Watson said.
Volkswagen’s attempt to cheat emissions testing has raised some old questions about whether it’s worth the money the state spent on incentives. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who talked to reporters after meeting with VW employees, said there’s no looking back.
Gov. Bill Haslam addresses Volkswagen employees. (Courtesy TN Photo Services)
“I’d love to know the person who could have told you this was coming around the corner,” Haslam said. “I still believe long-term, the state has a solid investment. And if not, we have the provisions in place to bring the money back.”
Haslam was referring to new “claw back” provisions that are now part of Tennessee’s economic development deals. The state added those protections after another company walked away from a highly-subsidized polysilicon plant that never even opened.