Chris Craig: Replacing an icon at the First Tennessee Development District
By Scott Robertson
Nobody wants to be the guy who replaces the legend. But every once in a while, the guy who replaces the legend does alright. Carl Yastrzemski went to baseball’s Hall of Fame after following a fellow named Ted Williams with the Boston Red Sox. Popular radio announcer Bob Kesling has called University of Tennessee football and basketball games for 18 years following in the footsteps of John Ward (who himself followed Lindsey Nelson). Chris Craig hopes he falls into the same category as Yastrzemski and Kesling.
Craig is the new director of the First Tennessee Development District, the organization that, among other things, works to create region-wide education and workforce development initiatives in eight Northeast Tennessee counties and helps local governments efficiently disperse federal and state grant funds. Before Craig took the reins, though, Susan Reed was the director for four decades. The Journal spoke with Craig on Reed’s last official day in the office, Sept. 15.
“We’re commemorating her last day with a private luncheon. We’ve already had an official function for the community, but this is something just for the staff,” Craig said. “And I know where she lives. She’ll still be very much a part of our organization.”
But she won’t be the director. And whenever a long-standing leader steps down, there’s curiosity about the direction of the organization. Craig was quick to offer reassurance in that regard. “We are not adjusting course from the path that Susan had the district on,” he said. “I very much am on board with the things we are doing.
“Honestly, I don’t think there is anything we are doing right now that we need to stop doing,” Craig continued. “All of our programs serve great needs in the region. Whether it’s our aging programs, our economic and community development programs, our housing programs – everything needs no adjusting. That’s a credit to Susan, who has left a well-oiled machine.”
That having been said, he added, the district will not shy away from chances to better fulfill its mission. “There may be upcoming opportunities to maybe take on a more visible regional type presence,” Craig said. “We’re discussing some things to identify our region more nationally and internationally and I think the development district is certainly the place where that needs to happen.
“Our workforce program, which we started around a year ago, has done tremendous things in our region with our schools. I see that continuing to grow and being a part of what I call this umbrella of things that are positive for our region that fit into our goals as a development district. And I think our elected officials would agree that we’re probably – not to take anything away from any other organization – but we’re probably the organization that is best poised to move in that direction.”
Craig is not an unknown commodity. For the last four years he has served as assistant director, studying Reed’s methods, policies and procedures. “And for 24 years, I have learned at the feet of the best director of her kind in Tennessee, if not the Southeast.
“I like to think I’m very similar in management style to Susan,” Craig added, “so the transition has been very smooth. Susan and I have been trying to spend as much time as possible together. I found out the board had voted to make me the next director at 4:15 on the afternoon of May 10, and from May 10 till now it’s been 1,000 miles an hour. The workday goes by very quickly now, but it’s a good kind of 1,000 miles an hour.”
Craig came to the region in 1990 from the Missouri Ozarks and has been with the district since 1993 when he was hired as an environmental specialist. “I’ve had other jobs, but this was the first real job I had, and I’ve never once gotten up in the morning dreading going to work.”
As his career arc continued through the district, Craig became rural transportation coordinator, then supervisor of planning. When he became assistant director four years ago, he assumed many of the administration functions Reed had previously handled. “It took some of the load off Susan to not have to deal with property maintenance and things like that.”
With that experience under his belt and a team he says is the best in the state, Craig is confident. “I’ve told the staff: I feel we’re poised to just explode with opportunities for our region and our organization. I really do think the future is as bright as it can be.”