Last month, the Johnson City, Bristol and Kingsport Chambers of Commerce passed an unprecedented joint resolution calling for the formation of a regionalism committee tasked with marketing the entire region, not just the Tri-Cities, to the outside world.
In the eyes of many local elected officials and businessmen, regionalism is often viewed as a solution to combat economic stagnation and compete for jobs and labor against prosperous metropolitan areas, like Nashville and Chattanooga. In short, regionalism means leveraging all of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia’s economic advantages and assets into a one-stop marketable entity and identity.
The idea for implementing regionalism in the Tri-Cities isn’t new. The Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, or NETREP, and the NETWORKS Sullivan County partnership have operated under the regionalism model for years, but Jerry Caldwell, Bob Feathers and Andy Dietrich, each chairmen of the Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City chambers, respectively, want to take regionalism a step further.
The architects of the chamber regionalism committee, Caldwell, Feathers and Dietrich, are still trying to flesh out details on how the committee would operate, its legal structure, membership and funding. But they do believe one thing: In order for Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia to collectively prosper, something has to be done.
It began in early 2018 when the three men, who happened to be close friends, were selected to serve as chairman of their respective Chambers of Commerce.
“All three of us decided we needed to do something. We needed to work on a project together. We need to make the most of the year that we have, and we’ve got this soapbox we can stand on to try and make a difference and better our region. So we decided to work on this regionalism project all year,” Dietrich said.
The action was spurred on by economic reports showing disturbing trends in the region, including declines in population, median incomes and median age. While all three men commended past efforts at regionalism, Dietrich said this latest data shows what’s been done in the past is not working.
“I applaud the efforts that have been done in the past, but we need to try something different. We have to almost get uncomfortable, really step outside of our comfort zones and realize we can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results,” Dietrich said.
“We have to join forces with each other to combat this as one, and we can make a difference. If you add us all up and make us into one metropolitan area, we’d be a force to be reckoned with. We could go after the ‘big fish,’ per se, and compete on some of the bigger stages that we cannot compete on when we’re fighting among ourselves.”
Dietrich said this effort is not meant to do away with any mayors, commissioners, boards or even Chambers of Commerce. He said cities and counties would continue what they’ve always done, but with the regionalism piece added.
Different from what’s been done before?
As it relates to NETREP or NETWORKS, Caldwell and Flowers said the chambers envision the committee representing a “broader” area.
“This is a broader conversation. This isn’t just a Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol conversation. This is Greeneville and much of Southwest Virginia,” Caldwell said. “We all need to be in this conversation together, and Appalachian Highlands is a working name that is an attempt to encompass all that and give us all something to get around and be identified by.”
Feathers said in his opinion it will be important to keep the economic development component separate from what the chamber function is.
“Those guys (NETREP, NETWORKS) have the ability to induce whatever needs for economic growth. They induce that. They’re the entities charged to do that and chartered by the state to do that,” Feathers said. “I think what the chamber component, to me, is if we can identify the common platform ... whether it’s workforce development, whatever it may be specific to what chambers have typically done under this one big umbrella, and we focus on that as a region versus each of us spending our individual dollars on our own little communities.”
Along with many other questions, how many counties and cities will be represented on the regionalism committee is still to be decided, but Feathers said the boundaries should be approached in a statistically logical way.
“I think once we get the demographic information and really analyze it in a way that shows commuter patterns (and) spending patterns, that will really begin to analytically define what the region is. I think that’s probably the more logical approach to do that,” Feathers said.
Because the committee is in the preliminary stage of formation, all three men treaded carefully when asked about legal structure, funding and representation. Dietrich said some names have been thrown around, but nothing definite as they begin developing an organizational chart.
One possible structure for the committee, as Feathers noted, is to have a large regional chamber with individual councils, similar to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. Under that proposal, Dietrich said all three chambers would remain intact while operating as part of a larger hub.
But, learning from past mistakes, Feathers said all three chambers are adamantly opposed to forming another organization like the Tri-Cities Business Alliance.
“That was essentially a ‘dues’ organization sucking membership dues from businesses. I think we’re all very sensitive that we don’t want to further tax business that pay these dues to another organization,” Feathers said. “Over the next three, six or nine months, as this group really convenes and begins discussion, we can really come to a more definitive strategy on how that’s going to work. But, I think the goal is to not be another tax on business in the region.”
Dietrich envisions the regionalism committee forming a “one-stop shop” for families and businesses interested in relocating here.
“Instead of going to seven different chambers ... you can go to one website, one contact group and that group can talk to you, see what best suits you and send you information regarding your interests and then direct you to the chamber you need to talk to,” Dietrich said.
Soon after the three chambers passed the joint resolution, an ambiguous promotional video was released that included the brand “Appalachian Highlands,” with the tagline “the joyful noise of Appalachia.” A website plugged in the video, www.appalachianhighlands.com, is currently under construction, but Caldwell said the site should be up sometime in early 2019.
“We had to take a leap of faith on branding this thing. No matter what you do or what you say with all this going forward, not everybody is going to like it. But, we have to do something. We have to take a step in that direction, step outside of our comfort zones and hope and pray this all works out,” Dietrich said.
“We’re going to do everything in our power that it will because we need to right the ship, turn this thing in a different direction where the average age is getting younger, the average income is getting higher and the population growth is going in an upward fashion. We’ve got to make some changes (and) we’ve got to work together. Give change a chance and hope it all works out.”
Over the coming months, the three men plan to continue pitching the regionalism committee idea and building support among civic groups, government councils and stakeholders.