Fri, May 29, 2020

DES GM seeking development

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Dickson Electric GM Darrell Gillespie says his utility's crisis control center will be energized soon.

Dickson Electric Service serves nearly 4,000 Hickman County customers in what most folks would say is the prime area for development here.

That’s pretty much why Darrell Gillespie, general manager of the five-county utility, has agreed to join the Vision Hickman board of directors.

“My interest is in the economic development of Hickman County,” he says. “We’re a regional utility. We don’t exclusively serve Dickson County or the City of Dickson.”

As the electric provider, DES is among the entities on the front end of an industrial prospect’s list of critical infrastructure. Gillespie says he’s getting more inquiries about services along Highway 46 between I-40 and Highway 100 than anywhere in his utility’s five-county service area.

“We courted a large distribution center, with 500 jobs in that area” in the last three months, he says – actually, two, one on the Dickson County side, another on the Dickson Hickman line. Both have made other decisions.

The corridor also was on the list for Hankook, a tire manufacturer, which settled farther north in Montgomery County and is expected to create 1,800 jobs.

“We’re seeing some momentum and a lot of interest,” he said.

Improved infrastructure along the corridor is a main reason; the Water Authority of Dickson County is linked to Bon Aqua-Lyles Utility District, and the authority also ran sewer down Highway 46 to East Hickman High, thanks to a grant that Hickman County government secured. DES also has improved its infrastructure along the busy highway, too.

“Our road map for the next five years, we have a new substation going in for new capacity,” between the existing station in Bon Aqua and Dickson, Gillespie said.

The growth area stretches farther, he thinks, to the junction of I-40 with Highway 840, in Dickson County just north of Hickman County, and down to the 840 interchange at Highway 100. Gillespie expects that area to develop in a way similar to Lebanon, on the east end of 840, which used to be a pure bedroom community.

“If you drive up there now, you just can’t believe the number of distribution centers,” he said. “The folks that have approached us, that’s what they’re seeing.”

DES parts of Dickson, Montgomery, Hickman, Houston and Cheatham counties, about 35,000 customers. Its major emphasis is providing efficient service -- and that means decreasing outage time when bad weather wreaks havoc, as it did as recently as March.  A staff of 75 does the job, 35 of those on the line crews.

An ice storm on the 3rd knocked power out to more than 1,000 customers, some of them until the end of the week. Gillespie said upgraded broadband technology provided a significant advantage to the utility as it worked to solve problems.

Two years ago, DES switched to an advanced metering system that provides automatic notification to the utility when a customer is without power.

“It takes a lot of phone calls for us to know the layout of the area,” Gillespie says. “With this system, within two minutes we’ll know.

The system, which also reads meters electronically, does lack the human touch, though 23 phone lines are at the ready.

“I like them to call because they can help us get to the spot,” said the general manager, who has been on the job for six years; he’s been an electrical engineer for three decades.

Gillespie said Dickson Electric is one month away from energizing its control center, at its Dickson headquarters. It features four big-screen workstations, from which responses to outages can be coordinated, with help from GPS and video feeds.

“All the team leaders will be in the same room, so they can discuss and prevent mishaps due to noncommunication, rather than being spread in the building,” he said.

Close by is a call center, where customer information can be quickly transferred to the correct crews; and a center command center, where Gillespie and his top staff can oversee response.

“It doesn’t look like much bit it’s a big deal,” Gillespie said as he provided a tour on the last Friday in March.

“If we have an event like we did in December, or March, we would very likely reduce the restoration time by a few ours, maybe four. That might not seem like much, but believe me it’s a big deal.”

Emergency response will improve further through an agreement with Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative, which serves the rest of Hickman County. Gillespie says that MLEC will loop the end of its broadband lines here back around, allowing service to be routed from two directions. DES has provided similar help to MLEC, creating a loop that supports broadband service in the Erin area.

“We communicate well with MLEC,” Gillespie said, adding that both utilities are involved in the formation of a Middle Tennessee utility group that will seek ways to improve service through collaboration.

Gillespie’s interest in Hickman County has roots longer than his professional responsibilities. He’s the grandson of the late Hugh and Ruth Gillespie; she was postmistress of Primm Springs for 40 years. Young Darrell grew up in north Nashville, but he was very familiar with the pace of life on their farm, including tobacco planting, hay cutting and fishing.

“I spent my summers down in Hickman County,” he says; he came to Dickson Electric after serving as a consultant to Clarksville Electric for more than a decade.

The utility executive is well aware of the importance of being prepared for growth. Gillespie said he was part of the team involved in recruiting Mohawk Tile to Dickson, where 320 jobs are expected next year. The recruitment process required two years and visits to other Mohawk facilities.

“There’s definitely a demand for some skilled workers,” he said, adding that the Tennessee Career Center and the Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Dickson can help. “I’m very hopeful.”

Activity is much better now than it was in 2008 and 2009, when DES growth was flat; one year, he said, it picked up 10 new customers, the lowest number he’s aware of.

”We lost a lot of industry,” he said, though that’s changed.

Now, though, in the five-county area, Gillespie said that Cheatham County has shown the most customer growth. But his assessment is that job growth is imminent in this area, too.

“There’s an opportunity for industrial development,” he says.

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