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Retention, remote workers, outdoor rec: Leaders brainstorm ways to boost business

David Floyd • Jan 12, 2020 at 10:00 AM

This year, economic development experts anticipate 50% of the U.S. workforce will have the ability to work remotely.

In the 13-county region that includes Washington County, about 3.5% of professionals, or almost 11,000 people, work remotely. That’s short of the national projection, but Alex Sadler, a consultant for training and development at the Tennessee Valley Authority, told a roomful of local economic development officials on Thursday that 3.5% is actually a solid foundation.

“For a region that doesn’t have a strategy around this currently, I think you have a really good head start,” she said.

Sadler facilitated a planning meeting Thursday morning at City Hall that involved more than a dozen local government, economic and tourism officials, who gathered to discuss a series of business development goals pinpointed during a meeting organized by the city commission in mid-November.

One of those goals involves increasing the number of remote workers in the region, an aspiration that Mitch Miller, the CEO of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, indicated takes into account the challenges associated with developing property in the region, such as the lack of available land. Leaders see the local outdoor recreation industry as a way of attracting young professionals to the area.

“We are in the Appalachian mountains,” he said. “Development costs are higher, but we have quality of life and amenities that not every community has that’s naturally built. ... Let’s utilize what we have. Instead of spending millions and millions of dollars that technically we don’t have on getting 18 sites ready, why don’t we diversify in how we invest?”

While economic growth will still involve recruiting industry and other related development efforts, Miller said local leaders should focus on targeting and influencing people to consider moving to the area. The challenge right now, Miller said, is ensuring that local economic agencies have a unified message.

Miller said working remotely is a growing trend and noted that employees at call centers in the area like Citi or Allied Dispatch, for example, are increasingly working from home.

Aside from drawing in more remote workers, local officials also have three more overarching goals: Improving the retention of talented professionals, nurturing the outdoor recreation industry and fostering a more vibrant downtown.

The two most important aspects of economic development right now are “people” and “place,” Sadler told officials on Thursday. About a decade ago, talent gravitated towards existing business infrastructure.

“That is completely the opposite today,” she said. “You still have to have sites and buildings, you still have to have those foundational things, but in today’s world, capital follows talent. And talent goes where they can create a life that they want to live.”

Regional leaders divided into groups on Thursday and outlined on sheets of paper a series of tangible steps they could take to accomplish their goals. They also broke down the metrics they could use to measure their progress.

To increase the number of remote workers, local officials suggested, among other options, exploring the creation of incentive packages, which hypothetically could include benefits like free internet for a year, for professionals making more than $50,000. Sadler pointed out that development agencies in places like Muscle Shoals and Tulsa currently offer $10,000 to certain people willing to work remotely in their area.

Leaders also want to find ways to grow local tech infrastructure, citing BrightRidge’s deployment of 10G broadband as an example.

To improve retention of talented professionals, leaders mentioned the need to keep the cost of living low, supporting local young professional organizations and incentivizing local businesses to put together internship programs, which could encourage college students to stay in the area over the summer.

In the realm of outdoor recreation, officials talked about the need for finalizing an outdoor recreation master plan, growing the regional trail network and broadening their marketing efforts. Lastly, as a means of producing a more bustling downtown, leaders suggested strengthening policies on absentee owners and blighted buildings, increasing awareness of and access to parking, improving downtown curb appeal and supporting the redevelopment of the John Sevier Center.

Sadler said she will take the ideas and suggestions generated at the meeting on Thursday and put together a report that she will share with economic development officials.

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