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Rural Town Readying for Saturn Plant : Landscape Changing Along With Life and Ways of the People

October 20, 1986|KEVIN KLOSE | The Washington Post

SPRING HILL, Tenn. — The mayor of the most envied town in America swiveled in a chair in the house trailer that serves as his city hall and carefully spat Red Man plug tobacco juice into an empty plastic cup that served as his spittoon.

"My dad didn't drink, smoke or chew," George Jones said with a slow smile. "I chew. "

Just then, the cluttered trailer reverberated with the dull whump of an explosion not far away.

Jones picked up a phone and called home. "Did you feel it that time?" he asked the child who answered. "We felt it here too."

It was a scene of traditional pleasures punctuated by excitement. And it has been that kind of a year for Spring Hill, the two-stoplight hamlet in middle Tennessee that became famous last year when General Motors picked it as home for its $3.5-billion Saturn auto-manufacturing complex.

Twice a day now, with near-clockwork precision, the 2,000-acre Saturn site just south of town quivers as crews blow up the limestone that lies in the way of future foundations.

Although questions have been raised about GM's commitment to the costly Saturn effort, crews manning squadrons of dinosaur-like earthmovers are working two 10-hour shifts a day to prepare the site.

Vast Undertaking

The scale of the undertaking is vast--farmland roughly the size of a municipal airport is being cleared, leveled, graded and readied for production of a low-priced, high-quality small car using manufacturing methods aimed at dislodging the Japanese from their dominance in that lucrative part of the market.

Those who question GM's intentions "ought to come down here and see it from the inside for themselves," the mayor said. "They aren't going slow at Saturn."

However, Saturn officials are not breaking their long silence on the exact timing of rolling the first car off the assembly line.

"We don't have a date on that," spokeswoman Laurie Kay said during a recent site tour for reporters. "It'll be when the car is ready."

The vague answers apply even to such concrete items as a plant Saturn will build here to supply cement for the complex, using the high-quality limestone now being blasted out of the ground. Kay said work on the cement plant will begin sometime between now and the spring of 1987.

Saturn has taken steps to soften the presence of the facility near this small community ("Population 1,250, unless somebody died last night," according to city secretary Betty Boyd).

Much of the earth cleared for foundations is being added to the tops of hills ringing the site. Motorists passing by on Route 31 will catch only glimpses of the construction. Kay called this an example of the company's sensitivity to environmental and community concerns. But some residents, curious about the giant facility, are disappointed.

"You used to be able to climb up the farm silo and see what was going on," said Gwynne Evans, a graduate researcher at the University of Tennessee's experimental farm across Route 31. "Now they've piled up so much dirt you can't see over the hills any more."

Although Saturn's projected annual local payroll of $200 million is still only a glittering promise, the shape of Spring Hill's future is emerging in new legislation and comprehensive plans that show how this rolling farmland and horse country could look by the end of the century.

Jones and his eight-member non-partisan City Council have spent hundreds of hours in meetings enmeshed in the complexities of readying their unprepared community for big-time development. In place of a legislative agenda that normally puts perhaps a score of new laws on the books in a year, the total for 1986 already approaches 50.

These are not everyday curb-your-dog laws, but lengthy ordinances to guide land use, establish sewer and water fees, set standards for merchants' signs and otherwise seek to shape a new community while somehow remaining true to a rural heritage.

New roads are being sketched on county maps, new schools and municipal facilities are under study and work is moving forward to provide a new municipal center for Spring Hill.

State and county planners have agreed on a right of way for a new four-lane, four-mile east-west highway, called Saturn Parkway, connecting Spring Hill to Interstate 65, serving Nashville.

A Texas developer who owns 852 acres along the proposed parkway east of Spring Hill, Hal R. Pettigrew, has donated 130 acres to the state for two interchanges. Pettigrew is planning a major residential-commercial development for much of his land.

Another developer, Smiley & Atchison, owns a key 175-acre tract south of Spring Hill's two crossroads that has been zoned for a new municipal center. Larry Atema, the firm's president, said construction of the first stage of sewers and roads for the development will begin soon. "Once the bulldozers show up, people will realize it's for real," he said.

The developers have set aside land for a permanent city hall, in part because of the mayor's persuasiveness. "They are super people to work with," he said.

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