Mayors’ task force delineates potential benefits of regional economic development


Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy and Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable. Photos by Scott Robertson

by Scott Robertson

A Blue Ribbon Task Force formed by the mayors of Sullivan and Washington counties in Northeast Tennessee has identified several areas in which significant gains can be made by taking a regional approach to economic development issues.

The task force was formed by Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable and Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy following a joint meeting of the two county commissions in October 2018. The mayors reported the task force’s findings at a meeting of the First Tennessee Development District Board Jan. 22, 2020, just one day short of the one-year anniversary of the task force’s formation.

At an organizational meeting Jan. 23, 2019 at Tri-Cities Airport, five workgroups were formed to identify and examine five potential areas: entrepreneurialism, existing business development, primary job attraction, tourism and workforce excellence. Each workgroup was made up of public and private sector volunteers.

The entrepreneurialism workgroup reported, “the region has put basic entrepreneurial ecosystem infrastructure in place yet faces a serious deficiency in venture funding and recruitment efforts.” The workgroup said support of efforts to create an accelerator to recruit and retain start-up businesses in the medical, technical and advanced manufacturing areas is crucial.

Existing Business Development
This was the area in which the maintenance of local efforts was deemed preferable to a regional approach. The workgroup report stated, “A successful existing business development program will be best achieved by local government/organization programs, as local staff contacts have the strongest ties to local business.” The report then noted that a regional organization working in a guiding and support role would be beneficial by improving education and training results for a better region-wide workforce to sustain existing businesses, and by working to create new industrial/business sites for existing business growth.

Primary Job Attraction
The workgroup agreed that, “primary job attraction – marketing and recruitment – would see much more success with a regional approach.” The workgroup came to no consensus on what structure such an effort should take. It did note that a joint approach to primary job attraction could spur fundraising efforts for product development, education and training and the creation of value-added incentives. The workgroup also said, “A singular voice would be more effective and impactful on many levels, the main two being with policy makers in Nashville and Washington and among site selection consultants, prospects and lead-generating partners such as TNECD and TVA.”

The tourism workgroup identified several potential regional courses of action, including creation of an “interpreters coalition” in which organizations including Bristol Motor Speedway, the Niswonger Performing Arts Center, HandsOn!, the Birthplace of Country Music and others would craft a cohesive regional story. The workgroup also suggested a region-wide inventory of tourism assets including ways of improving some, the creation of VIP packages for businesses that frequently host customers or clients and the funding of an outdoor recreation master plan.

Workforce Excellence
The workgroup identified “many quality workforce development programs in the region,” but noted a significant silo effect between communities and organizations. “If leveraged fully,” the workgroup said those programs, “will strengthen Northeast Tennessee’s workforce to be a premier resource for the region.” The workgroup concluded, “While there are many state, federal and private workforce development offerings, it was apparent during discussions that coordination to tie these offerings together could benefit the region by multiplying the impact of a better developed workforce.”

The full report is available online here.

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