By Scott Roberston
I’d like to humbly propose a corollary to the old adage that all politics is local. All economics is local.
I spoke recently with a Northeast Tennessee county mayor who’d had site selectors in his county looking at an industrial property. They spent more time talking about the regional workforce than anything else. 100,000 square feet of flat land is 100,000 square feet of flat land. But the company that had jobs and capital investment available wanted to know about the people in the region – not just the county – the region.
It’s obvious how great national trends like the fall of the American tobacco industry or the shift in the balance of power between gas and coal can affect local communities. Just look at southwest Virginia, where localities are banding together to try to save themselves from extinction. That’s not hyperbole. Population counts are dropping and local economies, bereft of their former foundations, are crumbling. Fortunately, the leaders of these communities understand the nature of the problem and are taking steps to confront it.
What’s less obvious, but just as true, is the fact that Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia’s regional economy is now a single entity unto itself. No longer can local economic developers and elected officials pretend they are winning if they take business away from each other. They’re just robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Back in the day, if Kingsport took a business away from Johnson City, it was a victory for one and a loss for the other. Now it’s a wash at best. That’s because we used to be able to talk about the people who live and work in Johnson City and the people who live and work in Kingsport. Today’s commuter economy has negated that.
My friend and colleague Don Fenley penned a great analysis post on his webpage, donfenley.com recently about commuter patterns that illustrates the point perfectly.
The number of people who live and work in Johnson City, Fenley says, is now lower than the number of people who live somewhere else and commute to work in Johnson City. Just so, the number of people who live in Johnson City and commute to work somewhere else is also higher than the number of people who live and work in Johnson City. So to say we are doing something “for the people who live and work in Johnson City” means we’re doing something for a dwindling minority of the population.
Fenley’s data, from Census Bureau numbers, shows the same phenomenon to be true for Kingsport and Bristol as well. What we used to think of as the regional economy is, in fact, now the real local economy. That which hurts Elizabethton, or Erwin, or Church Hill or Mountain City, hurts Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport. That which helps Rogersville, or Greeneville, or Bluff City, helps Abingdon and Wise and Mosheim. The economic commonalities and differences aren’t drawn along Friday night football boundaries anymore.
When it comes to attracting and keeping jobs and investment, we are viewed as a single entity, whether we all want to think of ourselves that way or not.
We are all the people who live and work in this region. The sooner we make that the cornerstone of our economic and community development efforts, the better our chances of real economic growth and prosperity in the future.