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Southern Middle Tennessee Today News for December 19, 2023


All news stories are aggregated from various sources and modified for time and content. Original sources are cited.


We start with local news…

Maury Alliance Report (CDH)

The state of the county's progress appears to be in good shape and growing as the year winds down, according to the Maury County Chamber & Economic Alliance.

Maury Alliance President Wil Evans presented his quarterly report to Columbia City Council this month, which highlighted recent project announcements and goals outlined for 2024, which include job growth, new investments and an always-growing Chamber body of members.

Evans said the county's unemployment rate has "stayed steady" over the last year, but the active project pipeline remains strong with about 22 projects currently.

The current unemployment rate is 2.9% as of September in Maury County, according to state data, lower than the state average of 3.2%.

Evans also commented on the recent announcement about Xxentria Technologies, a Taiwanese-based metal works company which selected Mt. Pleasant as the location for its first U.S.-based facility. This would create approximately 85 new jobs, as well as $45 million in capital investment for the county.

"They are one of the leading manufacturers of metal composites in the world, used for solar, transportation and other various applications. The project here would focus on the transportation industry, where they will be making composite panels for semi trucks and tractor trailers," Evans said.

"They will be building a new facility on 35 acres at Cherry Glen. It's right there with that strike zone by bringing a diversified industry ... and these are very high-quality jobs above the average wages that we've seen in projects over the last few years."

There has also been progress in implementing the county's recent strike zone survey, which addressed the top wants and needs based on feedback from local government boards and committees.

"On a typical year, we receive about 150 requests, which has been down a bit this year to about 100, but still a lot of activity," Evans said. "This year, with our new strike zone we've responded to about 25-30 of those RFPs, taking into account are these projects diverse? Do these jobs have high wages and are they a responsible use of the properties we have?"

Evans concluded his quarterly presentation by updating council members on the status of the Chamber, which now includes 636 members compared to 599 at the end of 2022.

"That's about a 6% growth, which the average is about 3%-5%," Evans said. "Last year was really strong with about an 11% growth, and so we are still trending in a very positive direction there. That's indicative of the business environment here, and many of those are new businesses located here in the city of Columbia."

Evans also added that the Maury Alliance's drive to support local businesses is still thriving, partly due to the Local First gift card campaign, which are cards valued between $10 and $25 available at the Maury Alliance, which can be used at more than 60 local businesses.

"This year to date, we sold and/or distributed over $47,000 into the community, and during the week after Thanksgiving we had a promo where we sold over $30,000 in just two days for those cards," Evans said. "And after talking with our front staff this week, we've also sold an additional $6,000-$7,000 worth of cards in the last few days. This program has taken off over the last few years, and we are excited to implement it to promote shopping local within the community."

Looking into next year, Maury Alliance plans to launch a new Size Up Maury software platform, which will focus on small business growth and local business resources, including steps on how to start a business, as well as an interactive map for citizens to find information on businesses and their locations.

Businesses can enter various data points of their business and pretty much benchmark their performance against other businesses within that sector of Maury County, within the state and the U.S., he explained.

Noon Rotary to Dedicate Clock (CDH)

The Columbia Noon Rotary Club will soon dedicate a free-standing clock at the Farmers Market Pavilion at Riverwalk Park commemorating the organization's 100th anniversary.

The item was brought before Columbia City Council this month as a resolution, which was unanimously approved at the beginning of the meeting. The clock is estimated to be valued at approximately $20,000.

"I just want to say a 'thank you' to the Noon Rotary club for constantly adding value to the city of Columbia," Mayor Chaz Molder said. "Whether it is through volunteer work, other public opportunities or providing beautification to our parks, all the while commemorating some of its own history."

The clock's design will be a two-dial E. Howard Post replica with an electronic reset control at the base, and will stand at a height of between 9-10 feet.

Following the vote for approval, members of Noon Rotary gathered at the City Hall council chambers for a photo-op, as well as expressing their gratitude for the council's approval of the project.

"I've been happy to be a member of this club, working on my 10th year which is approximately 10% of the time this club has been in this community," Noon Rotary member Gerald Vick said. "I feel like we do a lot for this community and have in the past, and I look forward to being a part of this second 100 years in this community."

In addition to the clock, a plaque dedicating the century-old club will also be included, acknowledging Columbia Noon Rotary's Feb. 29, 1924 charter date.

"I think it looks very nice and will be a nice addition when it is installed, and so again I say to Rotary 'thank you' so much for your many contributions to our community," Molder said.

"Please express our gratitude to your club, and we look forward to voting on this ... but also looking forward to the installation. While it's also providing beautification to our park, it's also commemorating a very important club, and its history, in our community."

Smile Direct Club Shuttering (MauryCountySource)

Nashville-based oral care company, SmileDirectClub, is shutting down.

The shut down comes two months after the company voluntarily filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

On October 2, SmileDirectClub said the filing was not a liquidation proceeding. Instead, it was a matter of restructuring to improve the company’s financial health to continue to operate as normal.

However, the company stated earlier this month that SmileDirectClub has made the decision to wind down its global operations, effective immediately.

Existing customers will now have to pay through another service provider for their SmilePay payment plan despite no longer having access to SmileDirectClub’s customer care support.

SmileDirectClub stated there will be more information released for customers after the bankruptcy process determines the next steps and additional measures that customers can take.

Smile Direct Club, headquartered in Nashville, had a location on Industrial Boulevard in Columbia.

HWY 31 in Spring Hill Makes TDOT Plan (MSM)

Once again, U.S. 31/State Route 6 – the main corridor through Spring Hill – is on a list of improvements to be made by the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT).

The Transportation Modernization Act (TMA) plan was released on Monday, Dec. 18, which is the result of an investment strategy for the $3 billion general fund transfer approved in April 2023 that evenly distributed funds across all four TDOT regions to advance critical transportation projects.

“As families and businesses continue moving to Tennessee in record numbers, our transportation assets must be ready to serve our citizens and visitors,” Gov. Bill Lee said. “I am proud of TDOT for their leadership in creating this 10-year project plan to guide investments in rural and urban communities that will modernize our transportation systems.”

This first-ever 10-year fiscally constrained project plan is supported by a new data-driven prioritization process that allows for a more objective review of infrastructure projects across Tennessee. The plan is a road map that will be reevaluated annually to consider the changing needs of our people, economy and infrastructure. It permits a long-term investment strategy that will inform TDOT’s annual budget proposal to the General Assembly for consideration.

Officials claim a change in its thought process has shifted the way its lists are compiled going forward. Previously, the department released three-year plans for projects that were funded through the first phase, but not through completion.

“TDOT is proud to establish this fiscally responsible infrastructure investment program for the state of Tennessee,” said Deputy Governor & TDOT Commissioner Butch Eley. “This plan focuses efforts on what can be effectively delivered by TDOT within available revenue, further opening the communication with local communities on what is feasible. We know the outstanding need for infrastructure projects across Tennessee is at least over $30 billion, however, this long-term plan is a solid step toward providing a safer and more reliable transportation network for generations to come.”

That shift in thought process, along with a variety of other logistical and financial issues, left U.S. 31 out to dry, but without any answers from the state to local residents or even elected officials.

A November Spring Hill Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting with TDOT officials yielded additional information, and the project now has secured funding, though it is not scheduled for construction until 2033.

Jay Klein, Legislative Director for TDOT, said, “We want to call our (new motto) ‘What we start, we finish.’ I think that should be important to this body, particularly in light of that project. Previously, we’ve had two iterations of our three-year plan that have been generated with this philosophy in mind. (U.S. 31 widening) did appear on the three-year plan prior to that change in philosophy.”

Klein said the Main Street project could cost $110-120 million dollars in construction fees alone, not including right of way acquisition or utility movement costs.

In addition to the U.S. 31/S.R. 6 project, one of Gov. Bill Lee’s Choice Lanes will be constructed, and TDOT will be recommending to the General Assembly and the Transportation Modernization Board that the first Choice Lanes project in Tennessee be on I-24 between Nashville and Murfreesboro.

One other possibility for future Choice Lanes would be on I-65 between Nashville and I-840.

Choice Lanes will establish options for motorists in urban areas to experience more reliable travel times through frequently congested corridors. Tennessee’s Choice Lanes will be new, additional lanes designed to reduce overall traffic in existing general-purpose lanes, offering enhanced transit options as multimodal facilities and improving air quality.

TDOT’s Choice Lanes will leverage Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) authorized by the TMA, freeing up state funds to support projects in rural Tennessee.

Klein said widening the interstate is a key component of the future plans for TDOT, as most surrounding states have three lanes of interstate beginning at their state line. Funding, however, is the main hurdle.

“Interstate widening is a huge piece for us. That’s one of the challenges with the state not taking out any debt. Our construction budget is revenue based, but it’s about $1.2 billion dollars each year. Because we do have potholes and other challenges, we have to take half for maintenance. That leaves us about half a billion for major projects like an interstate widening,” he said.

For more information about the 10-Year fiscally constrained project plan, Choice Lanes, and the inaugural Transportation Modernization Board and its newly named members, visit tn.gov/tdot/build-with-us.

Arts District Streetscape Nearing Completion (CDH)

The City of Columbia is nearing the end of a long-awaited streetscape project at South Garden Street, which will serve as a visual, as well as interactive and inviting gateway to the Columbia Arts District.

Much of the completed phase of the project has changed the face of the arts district for years to come.

Sidewalks, ample parking, benches and a freshly paved road make the South Garden entryway almost unrecognizable, creating an inviting environment for visitors to shop at boutiques, sip coffee, eat pasta, puff a cigar or just stroll.

Businesses benefitting from the new ambience are Mama Mila's, Barino's Italian, Bradley Mountain, Southern Charm, Faded Farmhouse, Battleground South Cigar Lounge and many more.

Business owners shared their excitement for the project's completion, such as Beth Sulcer, owner of Southern Charm and Samantha Reinoehl of Faded Farmhouse, who recently relocated to the area from East 6th Street.

"There is so much activity, and it's so nice to see people walking up and down, but it's also fun seeing people drive slow, looking around and gawking, because they are just absorbing it, taking it in," Sulcer said. "And it's just so cool at night driving through it when the lights come on. It's so much fun, and then you see people sitting out on the benches and stuff. Even though we were affected pretty bad going through it, we are looking forward so much to the years to come."

The South Garden streetscape project consisted of making the street one-way up to West 11th Street with roadway upgrades, creating areas for public art and social gathering with new benches, new lighting and more.

It was also one of the top strategic planning items when the city adopted its Arts District Master Plan in July of 2019.

The streetscape project, later approved in October of last year, included a vision of creating a natural, more visual and welcoming gateway into the district, with travelers passing by the Arts District mural at Columbia Fire & Rescue Station No. 1 up to Depot Street.

The project was also executed in conjunction with the fire hall's upcoming plans for expansion and renovation.

City Engineer Glenn Harper also said that, compared to the city's recent years-long West 7th Street project, this one is expected to be completed earlier than expected.

"The South Garden Street project will be roughly finished early, about a month-and-a-half ahead of schedule," Harper said. "There are three main unforeseen items that call for this, one being about 16 inches of pavement that we weren't expecting, as well as some curving we needed to get out of there in order to build the project. We also added a turn lane that was put in late in the game on Carmack that had to be adjusted, which drove the price up a little bit."

While the whole city aims to benefit from the work, the project will benefit local businesses along the South Garden entryway for the foreseeable future.

And though the project included its fair share of growing pains, many of the arts district's local business owners are anxious for what it will mean for customers, as well as future arts-related events, food trucks and its potential for local artists to create.

"Getting to this point makes it all worth it, seeing it all finally come together," Muletown Lumberyard and AMPED Sound and Lighting owner Eric McCandless said. "This will make this area finally look like an arts district. I'm glad we're so fortunate to be in this spot. What I'm really hoping to see for next year are a bunch more arts-driven events, something where we shut down the street and host an all-day festival."

And while being part of an arts-focused district, which includes multiple businesses and multi-functional arts-related facilities like the Columbia Arts Building and the Row & Co., the project also includes an arts element.

In addition to the roadway upgrades, the city is also seeking local artists to contribute to its visual aesthetic by creating artistic crosswalk designs.

"We're actively pursuing having public art for the city, opened a call for artists," Columbia Arts Council Chairman Quan McFall said.

Artists can sign up on the Arts4Columbia Facebook page with no cost.

McFall added that the work would simply consist of submitting a design. The city would take care of the rest.

"That's a big deal for us, because we've been trying to do this for a long time," he said. "We want to make so many things associated with this to happen."

The project's final phases were presented to Columbia City Council last week, with contractor Adams Contracting seeking a change order in the amount of $225,493.76. This would bring the project's total cost to $2,357,725.51.

An unveiling ceremony of the new streetscape has yet to be scheduled, but City Manager Tony Massey said he and the rest of city staff are anxious to see the project reach its completion.

"What we are working on right now is trying to find an artist to do some of the artwork we want to see down there," Massey said. "We've got some proposals out now. We'd like to also see things in the future like street festivals, things of that nature. It'll be a real natural spot to do that kind of thing."

Sulcer added that creating places like an arts district not only is a way to generate inspiration for creatives, but also a place where people can gather, socialize and feel the warm comfort of community. To her, that is the purpose of art, and what will be the biggest benefit from the South Garden streetscape project.

And while being under construction is never easy, especially in the case of roadways, the end goal is all worth it when the dream is to create a better place for those who visit, shop local and gather together on any given day.

"As art is, this is special because it's a creation from people in our own neighborhood, and then some," Sulcer said. "Anytime there is something with the purpose of creating progress, I'm not going to complain."

And now, Your Hometown Memorials, Sponsored by Oakes & Nichols Funeral Home…  

Mr. Hugh Earl Rhodes, 91, resident of Columbia, passed away Friday, December 15, 2023 at Maury Regional Medical Center.

Visitation for Mr. Rhodes will be Thursday, December 21, from noon until 2 PM at Oakes and Nichols Funeral Home in Columbia. A funeral will begin at 2:00. Internment will follow at Polk Memorial Gardens.

…And now, news from around the state…

Southwest to Pay Millions (Fox.com)

Southwest Airlines will pay a $35 million fine as part of a $140 million settlement to resolve a federal investigation into a debacle in December 2022 when the airline canceled thousands of flights and stranded more than 2 million travelers over the holidays.

Most of the settlement will go toward compensating future passengers, which the U.S. Department of Transportation considers an incentive for Southwest to avoid repeating last winter’s mess.

The government said the assessment was the largest it has ever imposed on an airline for violating consumer protection laws.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the settlement demonstrates his agency’s resolve to make airlines take care of their passengers.

“This penalty should put all airlines on notice to take every step possible to ensure that a meltdown like this never happens again,” he said.

Southwest said it was “grateful to have reached a consumer-friendly settlement” that gives the airline credit for compensation it already provided to customers. The airline said it has “learned from the event, and now can shift its entire focus to the future.”

The assessment stems from nearly 17,000 canceled flights a year ago, which started as a winter storm paralyzed Southwest operations in Denver and Chicago and then snowballed when a crew-rescheduling system couldn’t keep up with the chaos.

Even before the settlement, the nation’s fourth-biggest airline by revenue said the meltdown cost it more than $1.1 billion in refunds and reimbursements, extra costs and lost ticket sales over several months.

The government said in a consent decree dated Friday that Southwest “violated the law on numerous occasions,” including by failing to help customers who were stranded in airports and hotels, leaving many of them to scramble for other flights.

Many who called the airline’s overwhelmed customer service center got a busy signal or were stuck on hold for hours.

Southwest also did not keep customers updated about canceled and delayed flights, failing to fulfill a requirement that airlines notify the public within 30 minutes of a change. Some said they never got an email or text notice and couldn’t access Southwest’s website.

The government also charged Southwest did not provide refunds quickly enough. People who made a mistake entering details in refund requests to a special Southwest website were not told to fix the error; they simply didn’t get the money. Others didn’t receive immediate refunds for things like pet fees and boarding upgrades that went unused because of canceled flights, according to the department.

In the consent order, Dallas-based Southwest disputed many of the Transportation Department’s findings.

Southwest said that only a small percentage of refunds were issued late and that it never gave false promises about long wait times for reaching customer service during weather-related disruptions. Still, the company said it entered the agreement just to settle the matter.

Southwest said the 2022 storm that produced record cold temperatures, blizzards and power outages a few days before Christmas created “unanticipated operational challenges.” The airline said it quickly began reimbursing travelers for meals, hotels and alternative transportation and also distributed frequent flyer points.

Southwest has added trucks and other de-icing equipment and will increase staff during extreme cold temperatures at key airports such as Denver, CEO Robert Jordan said.

Final Story of the Day (Maury County Source)

In their final year of maintaining a constant touring schedule, Country Music Hall of Famers the Oak Ridge Boys performed their first headlining set ever -- during their 34th annual Christmas concert tour -- at downtown Nashville's Ryman Auditorium on Tuesday evening.

Denying the quartet's average age of 80, the group, which for five of the nearly eight decades of their existence has been comprised of Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban, delivered a strong, 22-song set of holiday favorites and the group's classic tunes including "American Made," "Elvira" and "Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight."

The act has easily played over 10,000 concerts in their time together.


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