Chattanooga has a number of economic assets that leaders hope grab the attention of the nation when President Barack Obama visits the local Amazon distribution center next Tuesday. 

“In recent years, Chattanooga has surprised many people by recruiting major investments during the Great Recession, serving as a focal point for the resurgence of American manufacturing and leading the nation in rolling out the first communitywide fiber network and smart grid,” said J. Ed. Marston, vice president of marketing and communications for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. 

The Scenic/Gig City will be the location of the first in a series of economic policy speeches aimed at a “better bargain” for the middle class, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

His speech will focus on “manufacturing and high-wage jobs for durable economic growth,” Carney said. 

Obama will also discuss proposals to jumpstart private-sector job growth and make the country more competitive, as well as talk about new ideas to create jobs across the country. 

Chattanooga’s distribution center is one of more than 40 fulfillment centers in the U.S. where Amazon employs more than 20,000 full-time employees. 

Centers in Chattanooga and Cleveland have created thousands of local jobs. 

“We hope President Obama’s visit will shine a national spotlight on the successes our community has achieved through close cooperation among Hamilton County, Chattanooga, the private sector and many other local organizations,” Marston said.  

Uncertainty about presidential visit 
So far, the media hasn’t been updated about what time the president will be in Chattanooga or his schedule that day, although he’s expected to fly in on Air Force One. 

White House leaders haven’t responded to questions about whether the public will be allowed to attend. 

Marston said that White House leaders have requested economic data and background about the area from the chamber. 

And he has no way of knowing if there will be other stops during the trip, although he suspects there could be.

One thing is certain-the visit has locals atwitter.

“I think it definitely creates a lot of excitement,” Marston said about the presidential visit. 

Some local business owners expressed via social media hopes of drawing the president to their business, but details about whether that’s possible weren’t available as of late Thursday evening. 

Although some locals expect that the visit will cause traffic and travel problems, spokesman for the Chattanooga airport Albert Waterhouse said-at least at the airport-there shouldn’t be significant delays. 

“While we are not at liberty to discuss any details of a presidential visit, we do not anticipate any major interruptions to commercial or corporate air travel,” Waterhouse said via email. “Specific to the day of the visit as well as any other day, we encourage travelers to check with their airline to get updates on their schedule prior to traveling that day.”

Area officials couldn’t confirm this, but there were several reports of a team in town Thursday in charge of preparing for the president’s visit. 

Tom Cupo, general manager of The Chattanoogan, said that when one of the vice presidents visited a few years ago, there was a pre-team of about 12 guys who came through with dogs and searched everything.

Manufacturing hub
Although Amazon’s local fulfillment facilities don’t actually manufacture anything, Chattanooga and the state of Tennessee have gotten attention in recent years for its manufacturing strength.

Workers here make everything from Little Debbie snack cakes to Volkswagen Passats. 

“Chattanooga has had a success story in manufacturing for close to 150 years,” Tim L. Spires, president of the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association, said via email. “The phrase ‘Dynamo of Dixie’ is representative of our longstanding rich manufacturing heritage. We have also seen phenomenal growth in the last several years.”  

He said that Tennessee led the South last year in manufacturing job growth and was No. 4 nationwide. Many of those jobs created were in Southeast Tennessee, he also said. 

Business Facilities, a national economic development publication, just ranked Tennessee No. 1 for automotive manufacturing strength for the fourth consecutive year, according to The Tennessean.

There is an array of factors that make Chattanooga a strong manufacturing center, Spires said. 

There’s a long history of manufacturing; there’s a positive, cooperative spirit between private industry, government and education leaders; the city is strategically situated so that company leaders have an easier time logistically getting items to many areas of the country; and it’s a right-to-work state and has a strong workforce, he said. 

Working for Amazon 
Some people have questioned whether Amazon fulfillment positions qualify as high-paying, middle-class jobs. 

According to Integrity Staffing, which helps place some Amazon employees, fulfillment center employees can make between $10.50 and $11.50 an hour.

Sources told Nooga.com that employees at the fulfillment centers start at about $11 an hour and get a pay increase every six months, up to $13 an hour. 

But Amazon spokeswoman Mary Osako said she didn’t have specific information about the Amazon pay wage scale.

“Median pay inside our fulfillment centers is 30 percent higher than that of people who work in traditional retail stores,” she said. “That doesn’t even include the stock grants that full-time employees receive, which over the past five years have added an average of 9 percent to base pay annually.”

Former Amazon employee Joey Miller said he started out at $11 an hour, which calculated to $22,880 a year for 2,080 hours a year. After six months there, he got a 25 cent raise. He left the company after about nine months. 

He estimated he took home between $1,400 and $1,600 a month.

Miller was a “picker,” which means he went from aisle to aisle picking up items to fill an order. Sometimes, he walked 20 miles a day through the 1-million-square-foot facility. 

He left to pursue his personal passion of opening his own videography business but said-at least for a single person-the pay was great. 

And there are other factors to consider about working at Amazon. Miller said the benefits are really good, there are stock options, and employees get a 401(k). 

There is also a tuition reimbursement program that pays $12,000 over the course of four years and gives employees the chance to take higher education courses and move up at Amazon or elsewhere. 

Even though it could be exhausting, he liked the job, he said. 

“I really liked the people,” Miller said about Amazon. “There’s a good community vibe.”

Who’s middle class? 
Taking a step away from other issues, such as immigration, guns and governmental surveillance, Obama kicked off his focus on the economy Wednesday at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.

He said that Americans have fought back against the Great Recession, which lasted from December 2007 to June 2009. 

He said that in the past 40 months Americans have created 7.2 million new jobs. 

The economy added more jobs than experts expected in June, but the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 7.6 percent, according to Nooga.com archives

And he said he’s laying out plans to help the middle class, which brings up the question of what constitutes “middle class.” 

And the definitions vary, depending on who is speaking. 

The Pew Center for Research reported Wednesday that fewer Americans called themselves “middle class” in 2012 than four years earlier-49 percent, compared with 53 percent in 2008. 

And USA Today reported this year that the question is complicated but important. 

A Pew Charitable Trusts study defined middle class as people making between $32,900 and $64,000. 

A U.S. Department of Commerce study said middle class means people making between $50,800 and $122,000, while the U.S. Census Bureau uses a wide range of between $20,600 and $102,000, according to the article that ran in USA Today. 

At least in some part, the topic is political and about perspective. Is a single parent who makes $30,000 a year and supports four children considered middle class?

Does it depend on where you live? It’s generally cheaper to live in Tennessee than on the Upper East Side or in Los Angeles. 

Click here and here to read more about the middle-class debate and definitions. 

Click here to read an MSN article about ways to know if you are part of the middle class. 

Updated @ 9:04 a.m. on 7/26/13 to update information.

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