Speakers push collaboration in Northeast Tennessee

Robert Houk • Sep 11, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Area business, government and education leaders met at the Millennium Center on Tuesday to discuss stagnant population and anemic economic growth figures for the region and to explore ways to reverse those numbers.

Mark Costa, the chairman and CEO of Eastman Chemical Co., said one takeaway from the Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia Regional Economic Forum was the need for an “umbrella organization” to bring the region’s stakeholders together.

Costa also said leaders should heed the words of a consultant, who encouraged them to “leverage three clusters” of economic development in the region by focusing on the tourism, medicine and manufacturing sectors.

Gov. Bill Lee also helped to wrap up the afternoon conference, which was was hosted by East Tennessee State University, by telling the more than 400 attendees that the region should speak with a “unified voice.” Doing so, he said, would release the “economic power” of Northeast Tennessee.

“Your real strength as a region is you are a collection of valuable assets,” Lee said. “When brought together in a regional approach, it will be a powerful marketing tool.”

Daunting Numbers

The forum began with ETSU President Brian Noland and Jon Smith, director of ETSU’s Business and Economic Research, presenting what they called “dire” statistics regarding the area’s population and economic growth.

Smith said the Johnson City and Kingsport metropolitan statistical areas have not seen the same growth and economic recovery that Nashville and Asheville, North Carolina, have recorded since the end of the “Great Recession” in 2010. 

“It’s disturbing to see Johnson City has had a moderate rebound, while Kingsport has had no rebound,” he said.

He also noted the region is seeing a declining workforce, with younger people moving elsewhere (with Middle Tennessee being one popular destination) to find jobs.

“Our human capital is shrinking,” he said.

Selling The Region

Mark Fuller, the founding chairman and CEO of Rose Global, said the region faces “more of the same” statistics unless it undergoes a “ radical overhaul.” He suggested government and business leaders do a “realistic” inventory of local assets, make “clear choices” on how to develop them and take “sufficient action” on delivering a game plan to change things.

 He said there has been “too much unproductive local rivalry” that has hindered regional collaboration.

Fuller also said there must be improvement made on marketing of the region. He said there shouldn’t be “nine different names” for the area.

“Roots are deep here,” he said. “There are rich assets and a strong culture. You have a lot of precious pearls. It’s time to string those pearls by growing together across sectors and across institutions.” 

Other speakers at the forum also referenced a need for the region to better market itself. Several said Appalachian Highlands has emerged as one likely name for the region.

More Collaboration

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy presented an update on the work of a Blue Ribbon Task Force that he and Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable appointed to better regional economic cooperation.

He said the working groups have identified a need to support entrepreneurial development and small business growth.

 He also said the task force is exploring ways for Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership and Networks Sullivan Partnership to better collaborate.

 “This would be a major step forward,” Grandy said.

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