Business leaders seek $35K from Johnson City to identify assets for entrepreneurs

David Floyd • Dec 1, 2019 at 7:28 PM

Kingsport businessman Heath Guinn left college with a degree in digital media, but soon realized there weren’t suitable jobs in the local market for his skillset.

“I was going to either have to leave or do something on my own,” he said.

He ultimately opted for the latter option. Guinn had started his first business when he was 18 and decided to keep that enterprise going, ultimately building a “pretty successful” digital media company.

As part of an effort to make the region a hub for rural entrepreneurship, local business leaders are seeking funding from city governments to identify local assets available for entrepreneurs.

Kingsport developer Dave Clark’s company, TSG Innovation Group, will perform the assessments. Clark says they’ve secured $35,000 from Kingsport to make a targeted inventory of assets in the city. They’re seeking another $35,000 from Johnson City to identify local resources that entrepreneurs could use in Johnson City to grow their businesses.

Guinn, who is also the founder of Sync.Space in Kingsport, said resources identified through this process could include local research by Ballad Health and East Tennessee State University. It could also involve pinpointing the kind of professionals, like programmers or digital media specialists, available in Johnson City.

Guinn and Clark delivered a presentation to Johnson City commissioners about the proposal earlier this month.

In order to successfully regionalize the local economy, Clark said leaders need to identify the advantages that are specific to different parts of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Between East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home and the local hospital system, he said Johnson City has a strong foundation in health care. He anticipates the assessment in Johnson City will be focused on those health initiatives.

Part of the assessment will involve determining next steps, Clark said. Leaders hope to create a business incubator and accelerator in Johnson City focused on rural health startup companies, using the organization to attract those business to the area and nurture them. They hope Kingsport, meanwhile, can become an entrepreneurial hub for advanced manufacturing.

Clark said business leaders are already working with potential companies who want to see this effort move forward.

“This isn’t a pie in the sky sort of a proposition,” Clark said. “This is something that’s got some meat behind it and has a real potential to transform our area.”

Guinn said the region has many entrepreneurs, but unlike a metro area, they’re spread out and disconnected, which leads to duplicate services and causes a lack of awareness about available options.

“You go to Nashville and there’s 25,000 entrepreneurs on a five-block radius at any point in time,” he said. “It’s easier to have classes for them and that kind of thing.”

Access to high-speed internet through BrightRidge, Guinn said, is one asset that has improved the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Johnson City and Jonesborough.

Clark said there are existing programs available to entrepreneurs in the region, including the Innovation Lab in Johnson City, the Kingsport Office of Small Business Development and Entrepreneurship, ETSU’s entrepreneurial program and Spark Plaza. Most of those tools, he said, tend to be tailored to “lifestyle companies” — small businesses, cafes, shops and others.

Leaders are hoping to transform the area into a place where companies have “scalability,” meaning they have the capacity to grow rapidly.

“We’ve not been competitive in that,” Clark said, a problem that he said isn’t unique to the area. “That is a characteristic of all the rural areas in Tennessee.”

Tennessee has two distinct economic sections, Clark said — the booming urban areas in Middle Tennessee and the low-to-no growth rural communities on the outskirts.

Rural areas haven’t been able to gain similar traction, he said, because entrepreneurs want to locate in vibrant places full of innovation, funding and like-minded people who take risks.

“That takes a long time to develop,” Clark said. “We believe that today the seeds have all been planted.”