A time for guarded optimism


By Scott Robertson

Since 1988, this publication has trumpeted the virtues of a regional approach to economic activity in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. The wisdom of a unified effort to attract jobs and capital investment, to address problems both economic and societal, and to change negative perceptions of the region held by those outside our borders has been apparent to several publishers, multiple editors and a host of advertisers and readers.

Today the region is closer than at any time in the near-30-year history of The Journal to making significant progress in building that effort.

The Mountain States – Wellmont merger is an example. The two organizations that once epitomized the Friday night football mentality in the region are braving not one but two state bureaucracies to merge in order to maintain local control of health care. To do so, they’ve had to spend millions of dollars with the full knowledge that because they will create a monopoly, they will face regulation like no other health care system in America to date.

They also know they will be required to spend more than $300 million over the next decade to improve the health of the region’s population in ways that are not accretive to their bottom line. Helping Northeast Tennesseans and Southwest Virginians live healthier lives so they go into the hospital less frequently would seem anathema to the mission of a hospital system. But system leaders know change in payment models toward population health-based outcome delivery is coming, and they’ll be better together if they get out in front of the very serious health problems here. Also, they know that to be truly successful, they will have to work with independent physicians to address those issues.

The move toward a true regional approach isn’t just visible in the private sector. In October, the governments of Bristol, Kingsport, Johnson City, Sullivan County and Washington County, Tenn., all agreed (with only two Washington County commissioners voting in the negative) to back a bond issue by the Tri-Cities Airport Authority for grading work on the Aerospace Park project.

In the not-too-distant past it would have been unthinkable for something like that to happen. But elected officials in each government saw the benefits likely to accrue to his or her own community – whether those benefits be in the form of taxes on the companies that may locate in the park, or in the form of taxes levied against the highly-paid individuals who will work for those companies and live in Northeast Tennessee.

The move toward regionalism is gaining steam because business leaders are finally getting through to the politicians the fact that “regionalism” doesn’t mean smiling at each others’ faces and stabbing each others’ backs.

Regionalism means forethought.

It means ambition.

It means achievement.

To be fair, regionalism must be tempered with common sense, just like any other idea that can go wrong. Northeast State tried to become a great regional player over the last few years, only to find its reach had exceeded its grasp. Before that, the Regional Alliance for Economic Development had to come to grips with the fact that seeing the faults in the way things are being done doesn’t give one carte blanche to bull rush others in the charge to change.

And to continue to be fair, there will be growing pains ahead. It is not outside the realm of possibility that some person or persons in the Tennessee Department of Transportation, which will oversee some of the funds necessary for the Aerospace Park project’s completion, could hold it against Northeast Tennessee that several of our state legislators campaigned against passage of the IMPROVE Act last year (and some are even talking about repealing it in the future).

Just so, initiatives like Work-Ready Communities are slower to take off than we might have hoped. But today, more than ever before in my lifetime, those initiatives are moving forward.

So as we approach the next 30 years of The Journal beginning in a few months, my optimism remains cautious. It remains guarded.

But above all, it remains.

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