Another local merger? Economic leader says 'Not so fast'

Nathan Baker • Aug 9, 2019 at 6:13 PM

As local leaders push the area toward regionalism, some are planning for a joining of the two largest economic development organizations.

Others aren’t quite ready to tie the knot.

At the Johnson City Development Authority’s regular meeting Friday, Chair Robert Williams announced that the authority would only renew its management contract with the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership for a quarter instead of the full year, as it has in the past.

“The reason why is that regionalism is real,” Williams said. “NeTREP and NETWORKS in Sullivan County, there’s been discussion about them merging, and if that happens, the JCDA will try to become even more independent of NeTREP.”

NeTREP, which serves as a single point of contact for business development in Washington, Unicoi and Carter Counties, including providing staff and logistical support to the JCDA, was formed in 2016 when the administration of the Washington County Economic Development Council broke away from the county-specific public board to form a nonprofit organization providing consulting services to the three counties.

Its formation was an early step in the efforts to solidify Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia under a single identity, and many at the time wondered if NETWORKS, Sullivan County’s public economic development board would join the partnership.

The two organizations have different structures — municipalities and businesses pay a membership fee for seats on NeTREP’s board of directors, while NETWORKS is funded solely by the municipalities in its territory — and different aims — NETWORKS chooses to focus its efforts on recruiting industrial businesses and shies away from retail and service industry activity, while NeTREP dabbles in both.

When talk has turned toward the two organizations merging in the past, NETWORKS CEO Clay Walker has shied away from the topic. Both already collaborate closely, he’s said, producing regionalism without a shared structure.

On Friday, Walker said preparing for a merger of his organization and NeTREP is premature. It’s “just talk,” he said.

“I think the idea of a merger between our two organizations precedes any of the recent discussion about regionalism,” Walker said. “But we have never moved beyond that as just an idea.”

Walker said he and Mitch Miller, NeTREP’s CEO, regularly meet to talk shop, and each meets with board chairs of various economic development groups in the region, and they frequently brainstorm “from the doable to the ridiculous notions.”

However, he said it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the two organizations would work on a proposal to join. If they were to form a plan for merging, it would not be presented within a quarter.

“If somebody thought something would be done within this quarter, that’s beyond ambitious,” Walker said. “There are so many steps we’d have to take, and I just don’t have anything to go to our leadership with.”

Miller, contacted for clarification from NeTREP, did not return calls Friday seeking comment.

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