In fall of 1979, Lamar Alexander flew to Japan armed with a map and the determination to bring foreign investment to Tennessee. The Republican — then governor, but now serving in the U.S. Senate — showed Nissan executives a map of the United States at night, with lit-up areas denoting where people lived and business was done.

The Japanese asked where Tennessee was situated.

“I said, ‘Right in the middle of the lights,’” Alexander told dozens of business leaders, public officials and others this morning at the Nissan North America Inc. headquarters in Franklin. “That was the first thing that we sold, the location.”

What happened next — Nissan ultimately locating an assembly plant in Smyrna — led to a wave of economic activity that remade Tennessee’s economy. It also highlights what economic development players say are still the basics, though the competitive landscape has shifted in favor of tax incentives and other plays states engage in.

We have outlined that competitive landscape before, including in a story for full subscribers on how Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has quietly revamped how it uses tax incentives. The fact is that most government officials in power consider incentives unavoidable at the least, but a debate that’s more intense than before has opened up about their merits and use.

Alexander’s talk, meanwhile, emphasized how some of Tennessee’s existing characteristics matter on a basic level. In addition to geography, Tennessee sold Nissan on being a “right-to-work” state, a condition that makes it far more difficult for unions
to organize workers and negotiate pay and conditions with employers.

The result went far beyond the Smyrna plant. Nissan North America Inc. ultimately located an engine manufacturing plant in Decherd, and in 2006 relocated to Nashville before building a new corporate headquarters in Franklin.

It’s also about more than Nissan. Countless suppliers sprouted up or refocused on Tennessee, and the state has since attracted both more auto manufacturers and big foreign investments like Bridgestone Americas Inc.

Alexander described the competition for Nissan as intense, but also as part of a simpler time. Can Tennessee, now a major player after the work of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and others, keep the momentum that began in 1979?

There’s no map that can make us sure of that — only hindsight once the results are in.