Finally time to do more than pay lip service to regional economic development?


By Scott Robertson

We are told the end of what Dennis Vonderfecht once referred to as the Friday night football mentality of economic development is growing near.

But we have been told this before.

We remember when private sector leaders came together to form a regional alliance for economic development to end the petty battles between Northeast Tennessee’s county economic developers.

But we remember how many county economic developers fought that effort with all their might, protecting their little fiefdoms until the state of Tennessee sided with them once and for all and the alliance fell.

So why should we believe it when we are told a new age of cooperation in economic development may be dawning?

Because of who’s doing the telling.

NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership and the Washington County (Tennessee) Economic Development Council have filed their first-ever joint proposal, and their CEOs say more are on the way.

Let me illustrate what a great departure from conventional behavior this is. We once asked an individual who worked with economic developers in those counties what would need to happen to make Sullivan and Washington counties work together. That individual told us, “Some people are going to have to die.”

It wasn’t that the individual wanted to kill anyone, mind you (we think). It was just that the competition between the counties was so ingrained in the culture that it would take a new generation to break it.

Say hello to the new generation.

Speaking to the Johnson City Rotary Club last month, Clay Walker, CEO of NETWORKS Sullivan County, said, “You should not be asking your political leaders to accept us working together. You should be demanding it.”

Standing next to Walker as he said this was Mitch Miller, CEO of the WCEDC.

“We are constantly competing,” said Miller, “but what sometimes gets lost is that these days, it takes a region to compete effectively. I tell folks all about Washington County. But you better believe I mention we have a speedway right next door in Sullivan County. I talk about Barter Theatre in Virginia. I talk about Eastman Chemical Company. When I work with site consultants from throughout the nation, they don’t know where Johnson City is. But when I say Tri-Cities, they recognize that.”

“We should work together to bring prospects to Northeast Tennessee,” added Miller.

“We should only be competing when we reach the stage of being a finalist,” concluded Walker.

Walker then pointed out that every other region in Tennessee has a regional chamber or other body to lobby Nashville for economic development opportunities. Northeast Tennessee has none.

“If we want the region to grow, it’s going to take collaboration,” said Miller. “Eastman is the third or fourth largest employer of Washington Countians, and Eastman is in Sullivan County. Economies are regional. Cities, counties, states and nations are defined by borders. Economies are not. We have to work together across boundaries if we truly want to bring new opportunities to the Tri-Cities.”

Of course it’s one thing for the CEOs to be talking up a joint approach, especially considering neither of them is “from ‘round here.” Miller is a Carolina product. Walker’s background is in western Kentucky and middle Tennessee.

The key is for their bosses to buy in.

And apparently that’s happening. At a recent social/political event at the home of Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge, who sits on the WCEDC board, Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips and Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable were among the honored guests. Venable, who preceded Walker as NETWORKS CEO, was eager to talk about the growing willingness of the organizations to engage in “co-opetition.”

“It’s good for everyone,” said Venable.

“It certainly is,” agreed Eldridge.

This publication has been saying “Amen” to that since 1988.

Now, perhaps it’s finally really happening.

And nobody even had to die.


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