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Two leading business organizations commit to regionalism

Nathan Baker • Sep 18, 2019 at 8:30 PM

The area’s two leading economic development organizations made a commitment Wednesday to regionalism, a recent push toward shared interests and activities.

The Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, or NeTREP, and NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership released a joint statement Wednesday committing to cooperation on economic development in the region and opening the door to a merger of the two organizations.

In the agreement, approved by both groups’ governing boards, bulleted points lay out shared goals for prosperity and outline commitments the organizations will uphold toward one another to reach them.

Several of the commitments speak to the relationship between NETWORKS and NeTREP, like the promise to “Continue to speak positively of the other organization,” and “Refrain from encouraging or incentivizing established businesses to relocate from one county to another.”

Clay Walker, CEO of NETWORKS, said the two organizations already work well together, but getting the commitments down on paper put cooperation at the forefront of the minds of members of both boards.

“It’s just a jumping-off point of things to come as we continue to explore ways to work together,” Walker said. “It kind of captures what we’ve been doing all along, some days more effectively than others. It’s basic operating procedures as we work with one another.”

Mitch Miller, Walker’s counterpart at NeTREP, said the real meat of the statement was the final commitment to exploring a merger.

“If merging or otherwise becoming part of the same organization is in the best interest of the region, to be willing to explore such concept and what it would mean with an open mind,” the statement reads.

Members of both groups’ boards and staffs have already been meeting to get a picture of what a single economic development organization over the four counties — Carter, Sullivan, Washington and Unicoi — might look like.

Miller said the boards are comparing structures and functions to see what’s similar and what’s different.

NeTREP is a partnership between private businesses and governments in Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties. Members buy voting seats on the board to help direct business recruitment and activity.

At NETWORKS, funding comes from the public sector, from the municipalities and county government in its territory. Its staff also markets its area to potential employers, but focuses on industrial activity and shies away from retail projects.

Walker said the joint committee has been talking since June of last year about the best way forward for the two organizations, but isn’t ready to make anything public yet.

Miller said he hopes a joint framework will be proposed by June 2020.

Local leaders have been talking about regionalism — functioning and branding business activity in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and part of Western North Carolina as one cohesive unit — since 2018, but many point to its impetus when Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System announced intentions to merge into Ballad Health.

The three chambers of commerce in Washington and Sullivan counties have committed to working together, and both county governments have created a joint committee to explore cooperative efforts.

A study paid for by several local governments recommended that the area unify under the name “Appalachian Highlands” for outside marketing purposes.

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