Above: Tennessee State Representative David Hawk and First Tennessee Development District Executive Committee Chair W.T. Daniels. Photos by Dave Ongie
By Dave Ongie
For a brief moment on Wednesday morning, it appeared that a vote by the First Tennessee Development District (FTDD) executive committee supporting the formation of a privately funded regional economic hub would be delayed once again.
A vote was scheduled for April 21 before the matter was tabled. On Wednesday, the contentious tone of the discussion following a motion by Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable that the executive committee go on record as endorsing the hub and having a working relationship with the hub led State Representative David Hawk to suggest tabling the vote in fear that a negative result might harm the long-term viability of the plan.
In the end, assurances by Venable and Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy – who seconded Venable’s motion – that the FTDD would have no legal connection to the hub and would not be responsible for funding the new hub cleared the way for a 9-4 vote in favor of the measure.
While the hub has been pitched as a public/private partnership during its development, Venable was adamant on Wednesday that the funding would come exclusively from the private sector. He noted that Mark Fuller has spent the last two months working behind the scenes to garner support from local industry to fund the hub.
“Private industry has not had a place where they can invest. That is what we’re opening up,” Venable said. “We have the commitments of local industry to fund a professional staff at that level. The money is in place. We will not ask a local government to make any investment as this hub is formed and works with our local communities.”
Grandy echoed Venable’s statement and said he expects the hub to be financially sustainable. “The commitment that is being asked of the individual business communities is a minimum of a three-year commitment to get started,” he said.
Venable and Grandy were met with plenty of skepticism from the outset of the hour-long meeting. Committee chair W.T. Daniels, mayor of Greeneville, came out against the proposal during his opening statement. While he said he supports the concept of regionalism, Daniels said he is proud of the work being done by the three regional organizations that have already been established to promote economic development.
“I’ve had people ask me if I support the idea, and I’m going to say up front I do not support this idea,” Daniels said. “I think we have to be very careful when it comes to politics, and this, to me, can be very political.”
Bristol Mayor Mahon Luttrell was also a staunch opponent of the formation of a regional hub, pointing to accomplishments like the creation of Aerospace Park as evidence that existing regional efforts are already getting the job done.
“To my knowledge, there was no hub that was created to get those up and running and for everybody to get together and work on them,” Luttrell said. “So I don’t understand why the hub is so important now.”
In the end, Daniels and Luttrell were among the four members of the executive board who voted against Venable’s motion, but the vision of a privately funded umbrella organization established to help advance shared goals such as entrepreneurship, workforce development and tourism ultimately won the day.