Photo above: Ron Scott, photo courtesy of NeTREP
By Scott Robertson
Three Northeast Tennessee counties that have traditionally been rivals in everything from high school football to economic development officially set aside the “Friday night football mentality” last month to partner in a new economic development organization.
The Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership (NeTREP) unifies economic development efforts in Carter, Unicoi and Washington counties, the three counties comprising the Johnson City metro area. Private and public-sector leaders from across the area have committed $5.1 million toward a $5.5 million, five-year funding initiative called Partnership 2021 to help underwrite the economic and community development program.
Among NeTREP’s goals for the five-year period are creation of 3,750 jobs with an average salary of $56,413 and the investment of $100 million in new capital.
Mitch Miller, CEO of the Washington County Economic Development Council, said the process of creating the private/public partnership has taken a little over two years. Over that time, Miller said, “we all came to the conclusion we’re a heck of a lot better off working together.
“There are so many things that make this place special, and at the end of the day, all that separates us are political boundaries,” Miller continued. “So I’m proud to announce today that we’re breaking those barriers and acting as one.”
The accomplishment of bringing the counties together, which would have been unthinkable to economic developers a generation ago when the counties fought tooth and nail over every prospect, is now only the beginning, Miller said. “There are five pillars that will lead to our success,” he said.
Of those five, the organization’s first priority will be retaining and expanding existing industry in the region, Miller said to the business leaders in the room. “If we’re not out talking to you, asking how we can help you be successful, we’re not doing our jobs. You make our economy tick.”
The second pillar on which the organization will be built is an aggressive marketing plan for the region, including both social and traditional media, Miller said. “This is a very special place, and the things that make it special need to be told to the world.”
Site and infrastructure development efforts will also be key to the organization’s success, Miller said. “This organization will be a platform for private investors to encourage our governments to work together. We have to address needs including new business parks and enhancing infrastructure. If we don’t focus on this together, we will all fail together. We have to find the best possible opportunities for all of us to succeed.”
The fourth pillar involves developing the metro area’s outdoor assets. Especially in Carter and Unicoi counties, quality of life enhancements abound in the form of trails, streams and other outdoor recreational opportunities. Those are most important tied in to the fifth pillar, talent attraction and workforce development, Miller said. “The role of an economic developer has changed. We don’t just recruit companies. We recruit people. We have to recruit talent to this area to supply the best possible workforce for companies.”
“But at the end of the day,” Miller said, “we can’t do it alone.”
The regional focus has been embraced by leaders in Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties, as well as the cities of Elizabethton and Erwin. Those governments have committed economic development funds to the NeTREP in recognition of the enhanced opportunities a regional approach can bring.
“Leaders of the WCEDC approached our community’s leaders respectfully and showed appreciation for the assets Erwin and Unicoi County would bring to a regional effort,” Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said. “They made a clear case for why each community within the metro area adds to the value of the whole and truly is dependent on the others if we’re to reach our collective potential. We’re excited about what will occur as everyone collaborates to achieve a brighter future for families and businesses throughout this beautiful region.”
Ron Scott, president and CEO of Appalachian Community Federal Credit Union, a member of the Washington County Economic Development Council (WCEDC) executive committee and Partnership 2021 campaign chairman, told the gathering of more than 100 community leaders the effort to meet the $5.5 million stated goal of the campaign to fund NeTREP’s first five years of operations will continue through the spring.
“Partnership 2021 is a valuable investment in our community,” Scott said. “Creating jobs and capital investment, developing our workforce, recruiting new business and retaining our successful industry are all valuable outcomes of this initiative. Strategic and proactive economic development for the metro area is key to our success as a progressive and strong regional community.
“This is serious business,” Scott said. “We’re talking about our future here.”