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Tourism and economic development go hand-in-hand in Northeast Tennessee

Robert Houk • Updated Oct 14, 2017 at 11:43 PM

When recruiting potential employers to this part of Tennessee, local economic development officials rely heavily on the natural assets of the region — the lakes, rivers and mountains.

They believe these scenic amenities, along with the rich history of the region — Daniel Boone, David Crockett, Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson all left their marks here — make Northeast Tennessee more than just a place to visit.

Development and tourism officials are marketing the Tri-Cities as a place to call home. A home for businesses and industries to grow with the region. A home for active retirees who want to live in a place with an excellent quality of life. A home for young professionals who want to raise their families in a place that has so much beauty and recreational opportunity.

“Many times, we’ve found that people like to locate were they recreate,” Tennessee Commissioner of Tourism Kevin Triplett said earlier this month. Triplett is a former executive at the Bristol Motor Speedway. “That’s why we partner with the eight counties of the Northeast Tennessee region and the (state) Department of Economic Development.”

Triplett said tourism is a strong industry in itself for the state, one that accounts for $800 million annually in revenues for Northeast Tennessee alone. Two of the top 10 counties in Tennessee in terms of the tourism impact on the local economy, are Sullivan (ranked 7th) and Washington (ranked 10th).

“We (the state) try to be the glue that connects all that,” the commissioner said.

Triplett said the state spent $500,000 on such marketing in Northeast Tennessee last year. That includes the marketing and grant funding that helped to bring a weekend motorcycle event to Johnson City in September.

Brenda Whitson, the executive director of Washington County’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, said state money for that event (which included motorcycle ride routes that wind through Carter, Johnson and Sullivan counties) benefits the entire region. And so does another state program called “Retire Tennessee,” which seeks to lure retirees to Northeast Tennessee.

“Today’s retirees are are active and they want to live in an area with great health care systems and outdoor activities,” Whitson said. “This is our second year in the program, and we’ve already had 27 families relocate to Washington County.”

More than visitors

Judd Teague, the executive director of Kingsport’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, said state figures show tourists spend $370 million in Sullivan County annually.

“That means without tourism, households in Sullivan County would have to pay an extra $400 million in taxes each year to get all the services they enjoy now,” Teague said.

He said youth and college sporting events — such as soccer, basketball and softball competitions hosted by Kingsport — bring visitors to Sullivan County who fill hotel rooms and eat in restaurants at times of the year (Thanksgiving weekend being one) when the proprietors can especially use the business. Teague said sports marketing has an economic impact of nearly $30 million annually in Kingsport.

That’s why Teague said he and his colleagues rely heavily on each other to promote the entire region and to bring “big events” to their venues. Teague said the Tri-Cities each have “unique assets” (a term that is used often by tourism and economic development officials in the region) to offer both visitors and potential employers.

State Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said the Tri-Cities has often faced a “conundrum” when it comes to marketing the area.

“We have three distinctive cities, so we paint Northeast Tennessee with a broader brush,” Lundberg said. “As a region, though, we have a good brand.”

Lundberg said the Tri-Cities is more united now in its marketing efforts than it has ever been. That’s key, the Sullivan County senator said, if the region is to “grow and diversify.”

He said one encouraging sign of this unity is efforts to develop an aerospace park at the Tri-Cities Airport. With local governments in Sullivan and Washington counties agreeing to put millions into the $18 million project, Lundberg said local governments are no longer giving “just lip service” to regional cooperation.

And he believes one community’s success in drawing visitors and jobs to the region is a benefit to all of Northeast Tennessee. Beth Rhinehart, the CEO of the Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said her organization knows that to be true by the economic impact events like the Bristol Rhythm & Roots festival and the two NASCAR races at Bristol Motor Speedway have on the entire region.

She also knows that having people come to such events on a yearly basis often yields benefits that tourism and economic development officials could never envision. One such example is a national GEICO TV ad that premiered earlier this year with the company’s iconic gecko placing its feet on either side of the state line markers on State Street.

Rhinehart said that ad was originated by a longtime attendee of Rhythm & Roots who is an executive from a Richmond, Virginia, marketing company that handles a number of national advertising accounts. He came up with the idea after watching people taking selfies with their feet on either side of the Tennessee/Virginia line.

“You wouldn’t believe the exposure we have received from that one commercial,” Lori Worley, the chamber’s senior director of communications and public relations, said.

Same song, different verse

Tourism is Jonesborough’s bread and butter, and Mayor Kelly Wolfe said his town has “many cards to play.” The town recently hosted its annual Storytelling Festival, which attracts visitors from around the world. Another of the cards Jonesborough has to play is the history of Tennessee’s oldest town.

“You’ve got to figure out your own identity,” Wolfe said. “When people look to relocate or apply for a job in our region, they are doing so because of our uniqueness. You might say we are serving as bait to get people here. We are part of the texture that is the portrait of Northeast Tennessee.”

Although each county and municipality of this region has a different approach for getting the word out about Northeast Tennessee, local leaders say they are on the same page when it comes to the overall message. Creating new jobs and promoting tourism benefits every community in the region.

“I see our region as being on the cutting edge in what we are doing,” said Clay Walker, CEO of Networks Sullivan County Partnership.

Walker said his group uses facts and figures for the entire region on its website. And he and his counterparts in other jurisdictions often collaborate with the state and local partners on “Red Carpet” events designed to educate potential employers on the amenities of the area and the competence of the workforce of the Tri-Cities.

“I try not to be territorial, but by human nature, we in economic development are often Type A personalities,” Walker said. “Still we know how to cooperate with one another.”

The Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership sees Washington, Carter and Johnson counties working together to bring new employers and people to live and work in their counties and to market all of Northeast Tennessee as both a place to recreate and relocate. Mitch Miller, the partnership’s CEO, said his organization has formed a task force of local business leaders, government officials and nature enthusiasts to develop a plan to market the region.

Miller said his organization is working with Johnson, Greene and Sullivan counties, as well as communicating with the area’s largest employers, (including Tennessee Eastman and Nuclear Fuel Services) to learn what they need to attract engineers, chemists and other talent to the region.

“We are looking to hire a consultant to develop a brand that takes what God has given to us and turn it into money,” he said.

Ready to work

Getting the word out about the quality of the employment base of the region is of high importance to Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable. The county mayor is proud Sullivan became just the second county in Tennessee (and the first in our region) to be designated an ACT Workforce Ready Community. The First Tennessee Development District is currently helping other counties to obtain a national workforce readiness rating.

Venable said Sullivan County and its partners will be relying “heavily” on the fact there are students in Northeast Tennessee who are already proficient in welding and other industrial skills before they graduate high school to lure employers to the aerospace park.

Meanwhile, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge would like to see a more aggressive effort to brand the region from an economic development standpoint. He agrees with his counterparts that cooperation is essential, and says it will take all eight counties of the region to successfully market Northeast Tennessee.

Eldridge also believes the area needs to be more proactive in recruiting industry to the area.

“We need to identify specific companies that are well suited to this area and go after them,” Eldridge said. “That’s the missing component.”

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com

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