By Scott Robertson
Regionalism will be top-of-mind when East Tennessee State University hosts an economic forum tentatively scheduled for Sept. 10 at the Millennium Center in Johnson City.
Eastman Senior Vice President, Chief Legal and Sustainability Officer and Corporate Secretary David Golden was the first to confirm plans for the forum, saying several private sector entities have been discussing the possibility of such an event for some time. Golden was quick to add, however, that the forum will not be a private-sector-only, or even private-sector-first affair.
“To be clear,” Golden said, “for this to be successful, it’s not an Eastman initiative. It’s not a Bank of Tennessee initiative, or Food City. It needs to be a regional initiative where everyone sees the case for change and what we need to do.”
Dr. Dennis Depew, dean of the College of Business and Technology at ETSU has been running point for the university in planning the event. He agrees with Golden’s inclusive mindset. “I don’t think it’s going to be (ETSU President Dr.) Brian Noland and (Ballad Chairman and CEO) Alan Levine and (Eastman CEO) Mark Costa having a big role of giving inspiring speeches,” Depew said. “I think we’re going to have some other people engaged in this that haven’t been engaged before.
“We’ve had a lot of conversation around how we help structure this thing in a way that it’s not top-down, that we don’t lose the grassroots folks who are out there in Carter County, in Johnson County or Erwin who may say, ‘Oh, here we go again. It’s the top brass telling us what we’re going to do,’” Depew said. “So, we’re spending a lot of time thinking about how we make this inclusive so others can know at the end of the day they’re going to have a voice. I think that’s going to be real important.”
The Mayors’ Blue Ribbon Task Force
The event should feature a report by the Mayors’ Blue Ribbon Task Force on Regionalism.
On Jan. 23, Mayors Joe Grandy of Washington County, Tenn., and Richard Venable of Sullivan County convened a meeting to nominate members of action groups to take part in a blue ribbon task force on regionalism. According to Grandy, “The deliverable at the end of this initial phase of work is to look at each specific area of the economy, whether it’s entrepreneurism or workforce development of whichever, and identify whether a regional approach is appropriate for that particular activity.”
The task force includes representatives from Greene, Unicoi and Carter Counties, Grandy said, and he hopes Hawkins and Hancock counties will take an active role as well. That scale comes with a cost, however.
The task force’s initial stated goal of bringing recommendations together by July 1 was, as Venable admitted, too ambitious. “We were dealing with 70 people from just two mayor’s offices,” he said. “So, we ended up with a little pause. But everyone has their marching orders now and we’re headed in the right direction.”
The good news is that, “I think by September we’ll be able to give a good report,” Venable told the Business Journal in May.
“Each committee has had its first meeting and we’re well underway,” Venable said. “The facilitators are doing a really good job, and we have interns from ETSU who are just invaluable.”
One question that will hopefully be answered well in advance of the ETSU event is the brand by which the region will be known in external marketing materials. The effort known as “It’s all in a name,” funded by the region’s municipal governments should have a recommendation in place before the event.
Phase I of that group’s efforts was an online community survey at nameourregion.com. That survey is closed. A second phase included an external perception study that was entered into three markets, Nashville, Charlotte and Atlanta. That data will be added to the market research and the key interviews that the consultant, North Star Destination Strategies conducted on a site visit. North Star will use that data to boil the choices down to a few brand names. Then North Star will submit those names to marketing professionals across the nation as a final test. A final recommendation is expected in mid-July.
It’s been more than a year since the drive for regionalism began to take hold. Initial discussions led to a joint effort between Northeast Tennessee’s three major chambers of commerce. Once the public sector saw the private sector was serious about discussing regional economic development, governments began discussing their own plans and preferences. The blue ribbon task force and nameourregion.com are outgrowths of that response.
The September meeting is an effort to bring both sides, plus other interested parties, to the same table, since most everyone’s goals appear to be at least superficially aligned.
“We were getting a lot of parallel conversation going and they all had good ideas but we didn’t have a good way to converge those conversations,” said Will Barrett, market president for Bank of Tennessee and vice chairman of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership (NeTREP). “I could see too that around the conversations that were going on, some people were beginning to take offense because they weren’t included. So, at some point we had to have a mechanism that really involves everyone, that brings everyone to the table.”
Jerry Caldwell, general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway and one of the three 2018 chamber presidents who spearheaded the regionalism push, said, “On the public side, you have a lot of experience. You have individuals who have seen what works and what has its challenges. Those are important voices. They need to be listened to. Also, you have experience on the private side, with individuals who have a ton of experience and have businesses other places. They’ve done research and they know what’s working in those other communities. We need to bring those voices all together.”
The September event also has the potential to strengthen the effort by including more than just the traditional players in economic development, Barrett said. ““I think a broader regional economic summit could bring everyone to the table, not just the top players but the grassroots players, the community development players and the faith-based organizations.”
The key to success, said Levine, will be all parties being willing to define and work toward shared goals. “Personally, what I’m hoping is that as a region, we can speak with one voice about what our priorities are.”
Golden is optimistic that can happen. “I think there’ll be convergence over time and from what I’ve seen as far as conversations, I think everybody wants the same thing,” Golden said. “It’s just we start at different with different perspectives because we are different. I don’t think the governmental sector is going to be mistaken for the private sector nor the private for the governmental sector. It’s different perspectives. But I think if people trust each other they tend to work with one another, particularly if there is a common goal.”
How will regional economic development work?
The CEOs of NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership and NeTREP, Northeast Tennessee’s two major economic development organizations, said they’re approaching the event with open minds. Clay Walker, CEO of NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership, said, “I think that anytime we can get together in a meaningful way and have constructive dialogue about our region, shared strategies and missions, even potential restructuring ideas that can make us all more competitive, it’s a very good, worthwhile idea. The dialogue has been encouraging in recent months; I certainly know when Mitch and I have met to work on ways to be more effective through collaboration, it has always yielded positive results. It will be a very big step to bring all of the groups discussing similar topics together… it’s kind of the very definition of regionalism.”
Mitch Miller, CEO of NeTREP, said, “My hope would be that we come up with some initiatives or directives that say, ‘here are ways we can work together.’ I think the bigger picture hope would be that we come up with a collaborative effort between public and private sectors to create an entity that works for everyone so we can market the region as a whole.”
ETSU was the natural choice to host the event, Barrett said. “I think that ETSU is a good independent venue, especially when you’ve got your state-chartered universities that have their own economic statistics departments that can hopefully give you non-biased independent financial information and insight into the region.”
“We as a university want to be perceived as a good broker,” Depew concluded. “We don’t have all the answers, but we think we can provide some leadership in bringing everybody together and recognizing voices at many different levels.”