'Appalachian Highlands' it is: Regionalism report teaches us new things about ourselves

Nathan Baker • Updated Aug 13, 2019 at 8:42 PM

Our growing region now has a couple of names to consider to help bring us together under a single identity.

In a 192-page report, consulting firm North Star Destination Strategies recommended we stick with the tried-and-true “Tri-Cities,” but also add a new identity proposed late last year — “Appalachian Highlands.”

In online surveys of thousands of people living in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia and hundreds of people living outside in Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville, the firm’s researchers found that most residents here preferred the traditional name, while potential visitors thought the latter was more descriptive and distinct.

“Everybody knows change is hard,” Kingsport Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Miles Burdine said Tuesday. “We’re used to being called the Tri-Cities. It’s what we always have been and always will be.

“Now, we’ve got a good opportunity to take a look at our identity as a region and evaluate who we are. I hope Appalachian Highlands catches on.”

In December 2018, the Chambers of Commerce in Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol jointly called for the creation of a regionalism committee to help develop a marketable identity to encourage tourism, business activity and new residents in the area. Promotional material they created used the Appalachian Highlands brand.

But some local leaders worried that the name “Appalachia” carried a negative stigma associated with poverty and drug abuse, leftovers of stereotypes perpetuated in popular media of the past.

Thirteen governmental boards, economic development partnerships and business organizations agreed to hire North Star to help sort out our identity crisis.

North Star’s research showed people living here were more likely to associate the word with “poverty, opioids, and pregnant sisters,” as one person interviewed during a site visit put it, than were out-of-towners.

When asked for their perceptions of Appalachia, a majority of respondents in the three targeted cities said they first thought of mountains, followed by the Appalachian Trail and hiking. Poverty was the third most common answer, but it was just ahead of beautiful scenery.

People living in outside markets overwhelmingly — 60% — responded positively to “Appalachian Highlands” as a place name, compared to other names like “Tri-Cities” that were received more neutrally.

Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock, who originally said she thought using Appalachian as a descriptor may be too broad, said it was helpful to be able to know how people in other areas view our community.

“We’re reacting from the inside, but when this data came back, it showed people outside the area weren’t as afraid of using that word as some of us on the inside,” she said. “People here will always call us the Tri-Cities, but if we’re smart, we’ll listen to this stuff.”

Brock said future tourism and economic development campaigns may describe us as “the Tri-Cities in the heart of the Appalachian Highlands.”

The North Star report recommended using both names as a way to help triangulate the area and describe the dual nature of the three developed cities within an expanse of relatively pristine wilderness.

Mitch Miller, CEO of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, said the next step now that the report is finished is to bring all the regional stakeholders together to develop a comprehensive marketing strategy.

“This information doesn’t need to sit there and lay dormant, we need to capitalize on it,” he said. “We need to all promote this region together, so it’s not just a name moving forward.”