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News That GM's Giant Saturn Plant Is Landing in Town Sends Spring Hill, Tenn. into Orbit

updated 08/19/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/19/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The Jerseys and the Holsteins graze along Highway 31, where the corn is nearly as high as the farmers on their John Deere tractors. It's a picture of tranquillity. But there's something in the air in Spring Hill, Tenn. (pop. 1,100), some excitement beyond the insistent chirping of the cicadas. Two weeks ago, General Motors named this drowsy hamlet (one hour's drive south of Nashville) as the main site of its $5 billion Saturn Project. The state-of-the-art factory, due to open in 1989, will eventually roll out as many as 500,000 subcompact cars a year. Ever since the announcement, the locals have been abuzz, trying to figure out how to greet the Yankee executives with their grand plan to build the world's largest auto plant. "Sure, it's an honor to be selected by the world's biggest corporation," says Peter Jenkins, a 34-year-old author and former Yankee. "Now we want to be sure they don't overrun us."

Until the news that GM's computers and chieftains had chosen Spring Hill after evaluating about 1,000 other sites and 60 economic factors, the town had seemed more in love with the past than with the future. Settled in the early 19th century by fur trappers and farmers, the lush plain was nicknamed "the Dimple of the Universe" for its idyllic setting. Slaves worked the giant tobacco and hemp plantations until the Civil War, in which the town earned a wry footnote. On the eve of the Battle of Franklin, Confederate General John Bell Hood allowed Union forces to slip away while he and his troops slept. Spring Hill seems to have that sort of soporific effect on everyone. "The pace is just slower than everywhere," observes Wallace Hebert, a 39-year-old historian. "The phones won't even dial fast. When you go to the bank, you don't run in and out, but expect to spend time talking with all the little old ladies, the town's best source of information."

The Saturn Project represents the largest single industrial investment in American history. On land where alfalfa and corn now wave in the breeze, GM will erect a huge complex—150 acres under one roof—employing 6,000 workers with an annual payroll of $200 million. "The main goal," says GM spokesman Stan Hall, "is to make low-cost quality cars that can overtake the Japanese. But if we do it right, we can bring our industry into the 21st century." And bring Spring Hill along with it.

Five hundred people packed the Columbia State Community College for the announcement that the 1,150-acre Haynes Haven farm—the pride of Spring Hill because of its gorgeous Greek revival mansion—would become the center of Saturn's orbit. A high school band played Tennessee Waltz. "One of our highest priorities," stated GM's project director William Hoglund, "is to proceed in such a way that we preserve the quality of life and natural beauty that attracted us."

Not everyone in town accepts GM in the role of nature conservator or wants Spring Hill brought forcibly up to date. As Hoglund spoke, old-timers on the edge of the crowd wept. Bill Marks, a 40-year-old lineman with South Central Bell, voiced his disenchantment with a freshly coined slogan, "Save Spring Hill. Buy a Ford." After the meeting, teenagers cruised the back roads, shouting from the back of pickup trucks, "GM go home!" Later that night, 70 area residents met at the Neapolis Community Center to share their apprehensions about the impact of a sprawling industrial site and an influx of workers and their families. "We never asked for GM," said Pat Campbell, 30, a fourth-generation dairy farmer. "We feel like the people of Appalachia whose government has said, 'Your way of life's not good enough. We're going to change it.' " Pat's 62-year-old father, John, is badly rattled. "As far as I'm concerned Spring Hill just died," he says. "It'll never be the same." He worries especially about the rings of supply facilities that will inevitably spring up to support the Saturn project. "It may become the most beautiful plant in the United States," he says, "but the rings of Saturn could turn to junk."

Those rings may already be forming. "We don't know if we're going to have a strip city or controlled growth in Spring Hill," says Ron Cooper, principal planner for the state's Department of Economic & Community Development. The present real estate scene is little more than a free-for-all. "Realtors are running around like their pants are on fire," exclaims Norman Dean, a broker and auctioneer who favors wide ties and Stetson hats. "People have been coming in with their tongues hanging out, asking, 'What have you got that I can buy?' " A rumor about the location of Saturn's cloverleaf intersection with Interstate 65 was enough to drive up the asking price on a strategically placed lot from $200,000 to $1.5 million overnight. At Dean's office in Columbia the four phone lines have been blinking like a video game since 5:30 a.m. "The prices are going up by the hour," he says. "I've seen farms that would have gone for $3,500 an acre yesterday go for $5,500 today. I'll sell a farm at 10 o'clock, and at 1 o'clock someone else has offered the guy a profit. I used to dream of selling $3 to $5 million of land a year. Now I'm doing that in a day."

Author Peter Jenkins spent five years crisscrossing America on foot, chronicling his travels in two best-selling journals, A Walk Across America and The Walk West. With firsthand knowledge of the country and enough profits from his books to live anywhere, Jenkins and his wife Barbara chose to put down their roots in Spring Hill. He is not open to bids on his farmhouse home. "I don't care if I'm offered $10 million, I'm not selling," he says.

Last May, George Jones, the town's 41-year-old mayor, won re-election on a platform calling for progress, development and industry. "It looks like I forgot to turn off the spigot," says Jones. B.S. (Before Saturn) records will show Spring Hill had one school, two stoplights, a volunteer fire department, two police officers and a part-time judge. Mayor Jones has already met with state planning officials to talk about construction of two schools and a city-hall complex, including a fire department and, of course, a jail and courtroom. Though awed by the magnitude of the problems, His Honor is optimistic, confident that this time the Yankees can be held in check. "We've been whipped by the North once," he says, "and we don't intend for it to happen again."

Meanwhile over at Haynes Haven, soon to be absorbed by Saturn, the workers are taking things one day at a time. Farm manager Ray Woods, a beefy 45 year old in a blue worksuit, is busy baling the hay for sale, rather than storing it as winter feed for the livestock. "This used to be the next best thing to heaven," says Woods, a shaft of hay dangling from his mouth. "In the morning when the dew is fresh and the trees don't move and the birds are out, this was one of the most peaceful places on this earth."

One thing is certain, whether you're for or against GM's designs on Spring Hill: The Dimple of the Universe is about to undergo massive plastic surgery.

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