Bristol mayors tout economic progress at first virtual State of the Cities event


Bristol, Tenn., Mayor Mahlon Luttrell and Bristol, Va., Mayor Bill Hartley

Bristol, Tenn., Mayor Mahlon Luttrell and Bristol, Va., Mayor Bill Hartley took to the Internet Wednesday to take part in the first virtual State of the Cities event. The Bristol Chamber of Commerce has held a live State of the Cities event for the last seven years at the train station, but was forced into the BTES television studios this year by the COVID crisis.

Each mayor took the opportunity to mention the economic progress made in his city during, and despite, the crisis. Hartley began by saying Bristol, Va., has righted its own fiscal ship.

“The state of our city is one of resilience,” Hartley said. “A few short years ago, Bristol was considered one of the most fiscally distressed cities in Virginia. Our credit rating had been downgraded. We were borrowing from ourselves to finance city operations and capital expenses…we made difficult but necessary choices. As a result, we went from borrowing millions in tax anticipation notes to creating an operating surplus and setting aside reserve funds for emergencies.

“While our work is far from done,” Hartley said, “we have turned the corner and our city is headed in the right financial direction.”

That direction, Hartley said, includes a new emphasis on tourism. “After the imposition of stay-at-home orders, many are looking for opportunities for safe enjoyable vacations, recreation and entertainment. This trend plays to both our community and region’s strength and these visitors will help support our restaurants, hotels and other local businesses.”

After mentioning the proposed Hard Rock Casino and Resort as a potential economic game-changer down the line, Hartley said the COVID crisis has presented the city with an opportunity to draw individuals to Bristol not just as tourists, but as residents.

“COVID has impacted how many individuals work…This trend has not subsided, but has been coupled with an increase in individuals moving away from large cities to smaller metros and rural areas. This creates a unique opportunity for us to reframe our economic development efforts to include recruiting individuals rather than entire companies.

Luttrell agreed, saying Bristol, Tenn.’s digital infrastructure makes it an ideal place for work-from-home employees of companies outside the region.

“If you look at that infrastructure, especially the 10-gig high speed data that BTES provides, we’re ripe for that environment. And, I think that’s going to be one of our ways to the future. I don’t think we’re ever going to see the large plants (moving to Bristol) again. I know we’d all like to have the large manufacturing facilities, but I just don’t think that’s going to happen again in our lifetimes…but we don’t have tunnel vision anymore. We’re wide open to any suggestion that comes our way.”

Luttrell also highlighted several projects underway in the city, including construction of a new Holiday Inn and a mixed-use development he referred to as part of “a wave of revitalization” in the city’s downtown. Luttrell praised the city’s economic development team for its work in those and other projects, as well as the city school system’s programs in workforce development.

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