Bristol 2040 plan creating synergy as the twin cities forge ahead

From left, Allen Hurley, Bristol, Virginia Mayor Anthony Farnum, Jerry Caldwell, Bristol, Tennessee Mayor Mahlon Luttrell and David Wagner answer questions during the State of the Cities Visioning Summit put on by the Bristol Chamber of Commerce last month. PHOTO BY EARL NEIKIRK

by Dave Ongie

As we’ve chronicled on these pages over the years, regional cooperation is a difficult proposition even when dealing with entities inside a single state. 

Reaching across state lines in the spirit of cooperation brings another level of complexities into play. That’s a reality the twin cities of Bristol, Tennessee, and Bristol, Virginia, have been living with since their inception. 

Leaders from both sides of the state line gathered together in Bristol’s historic train station last month for a visioning summit aimed at identifying the strength of both cities and drawing upon them to create a unifying identity. Those in attendance were able to lay eyes on an extensive Bristol Area 2040 Community Assessment submitted by Market Street Services as work begins to formulate the steps that need to be taken in the coming years to advance the interests of folks on both sides of the border.
Allen Hurley, a member of the Bristol 2040 steering committee, noted that a revitalized downtown and attractions on both sides of the border give Bristol plenty to offer.

“We need to figure out how to package that together,” Hurley said. “That’s who we are. We just have to put this plan together and execute it.”

Putting the plan together will admittedly be difficult given the different playing fields the two Bristols find themselves on. The community assessment that was distributed at last month’s summit pointed out a few headwinds that make cooperation difficult.

In Virginia, cities are independent of counties, making Bristol, Virginia a completely separate entity from surrounding Washington County, Virginia. Meanwhile, Bristol, Tennessee is able to share services and benefits funded by Sullivan County in Tennessee. The report pointed out the setup in Virginia actually makes Bristol and Washington County competitors for new investment.

There is also the issue of the drastically different systems of taxation in Tennessee and Virginia. While Tennessee doesn’t have an income tax like Virginia does, the Volunteer State does have a much higher sales tax rate. This has created an advantage to living in Tennessee, which has hurt school enrollment and population in Bristol, Virginia. Conversely, Bristol, Virginia, retailers benefit from a sales tax rate that is nearly half the sales tax rate on the Tennessee side of the line.

Fortunately, the relationship between the two cities has improved in recent years, and there are a few high profile examples to show for the cooperation that has already occurred, including the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and the Believe in Bristol initiative.

The journey between 2021 and 2040 promises to be a long one, but for now, leaders on both sides of the border are concentrating on a few key priorities highlighted in the plan. There will be a focus on art, tourism, the music economy and downtown Bristol – areas where there has been collaboration and success in recent years. Cultivating a competitive workforce, encouraging entrepreneurship and housing will be early high-profile challenges that need to be tackled.

J. Mac Holladay of Market Street Services joined the event virtually to talk about his takeaways from the Bristol 2040 Community Assessment his firm conducted. He said every community has its strengths and weaknesses, but embracing your identity is always the first step to success.

“If you know who you are and know where you want to go, you can get there,” Holladay said.

The path forward is to focus on a few key areas and continue building on recent successes, which exist on both sides of State Street. The promise of a new Hard Rock Café Hotel and Casino and an Amazon distribution center is creating momentum on the Virginia side of the line to match the work that has been taking place on the Tennessee side.

“It wasn’t that long ago that Bristol, Virginia was identified as the most fiscally distressed locality in Virginia,” Bristol, Virginia Mayor Anthony Farnum said. “Recently we’ve had several increases to the city’s credit rating, and we are no longer the most fiscally distressed city in Virginia.

“There’s a reason these companies are coming to Bristol, Virginia. We are determined to grow, look ahead and go forward.”

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