Mark Costa speaks a the Eastman Leaders Breakfast Feb. 22. Photo by Gabriel Logan
By Scott Robertson
Several months ago, Eastman Chairman and CEO Mark Costa quietly convened a meeting of the top executives of several of the region’s major employers, including Alan Levine, (CEO of then-Mountain States Health Alliance, now Ballad Health), Scott Niswonger, executive chairman of Landair Transport, Dr. Brian Noland of East Tennessee State University and others. The focus of the meeting, according to Levine, was discussion of a regional approach to economic development.
Costa expressed optimism for a new regional economic development approach during his remarks at the annual Eastman Regional Leaders Breakfast Feb. 22 in Kingsport after Levine publicly thanked him for bringing the leaders together. “I do think there is actually a real opportunity because the environment is getting more supportive,” Costa told an audience of more than 200 business and government leaders from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
While Costa has expressed support for regional economic development at the Leaders Breakfast in past years, his comments this year were more direct, pointed and action-oriented than ever before. “That is the only thing we at Eastman are going to support, just to be exceptionally clear – a regional approach where we all work together as one team, which I absolutely know we can do, to create more growth and investment.”
“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again,” Costa said, “the only way this region is going to survive is if it comes together as a region.”
“If each city is out there trying to compete against each other, you’ll get some retail shops to move from one city to the next within the area and it’s an utter waste of time,” Costa continued. “We need more jobs in the region. We all will win in the end no matter where those first successes actually land. They will create momentum for investment not just for those specific plants, but in the lifestyle and infrastructure that goes with it.”
Costa also addressed the need for improvements in education and training, not just in the Tri-Cities, but across the country. “We need more public-private partnerships on how we do training and development of workers,” he said. “The public sector really isn’t getting it done. The private sector probably can’t do it by itself, so how can we collaborate better? I think there are a lot of programs like the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing here in Kingsport that are examples of how we should really move forward.”
Costa decried the state of education in America, telling the audience innovation-based companies like Eastman are having a harder time finding employees with the mental acuity to stay ahead in a global economy. “I don’t know if it’s true,” Costa said, “but I’ve been told the No.1 graduating major right now is psychology. Now if we keep going this way, we are going to need a lot of psychologists because we’re not fixing the core issues of our country.
“I would prefer having more people innovating new products and figuring how to deliver them across the planet – that’s how you close the trade deficit, by the way. The way Apple wins, the way we win, is through innovation. That’s how you close the trade deficit. But to innovate, you have to have a lot more sophisticated people. We’ve lost our way in how we’re educating our kids. It’s embarrassing on a global stage.”