Pictured above, Mitch Miller (left) and Clay Walker
The economic development organization threw out a collaborative document a year in the making in favor of its own brand new plan. Reactions ran the gamut from disappointed to delighted.
By Scott Robertson
Three meetings this week revealed a new level of clarity regarding the positions of major players for and against efforts to create a regional economic development organization in northeast Tennessee: The NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership Board meeting Tuesday, the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership (NeTREP) meeting Thursday afternoon and the Sullivan County Commission meeting Thursday night.
Formal talks about either a merger or a memorandum of understanding between the boards of NETWORKS (the economic development organization of record with the state of Tennessee for Sullivan County, with a contract to act as the economic developer for properties in Hawkins County) and NeTREP (the economic development organization of record for Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties) have been ongoing since Sept. 19, 2019.
Through the spring, NeTREP chair Will Barrett sat in on NETWORKS board meetings, which are open to the public as NETWORKS is entirely funded by local governments.
In late June, the two boards held a joint meeting in Blountville. That meeting was followed by three Zoom meetings in July during which details regarding the possible scope, purpose, governance and structure which either a merged entity or a cooperative agreement between the two organizations would create.
Following those meetings, and using the input they generated, the CEOs of the two organizations, Clay Walker of NETWORKS and Mitch Miller of NeTREP spent time in August and September co-authoring a memorandum of understanding (MOU) along with consultant Mark Fuller of ROSC Global, with the stated intention of taking it to their boards for approval or modification.
Key to that MOU was the concept of a regional hub, which presumably would be created by joint action of the two organizations. The MOU stated, “The Parties intend to build on past efforts to improve organizational effectiveness, efficiency and collaboration on truly regional issues with a focus on increasing regional growth and prosperity, including overall economic development, health, education, community development, infrastructure/transport, and diversity/inclusion: a hub by the region, for the region, one which honors and safeguards the region’s unique history and culture, protects and promotes attributes and advantages of each community, acts as a responsible steward for its most valuable assets, and provides the necessary coordination and support to capture the most promising opportunities in the future.”
The NeTREP board approved the MOU as written in September.
However, when the NETWORKS Board met the morning of Oct. 13, the MOU was not up for consideration. Instead, a very different document, authored without input from NeTREP or ROSC Global, was presented.
MEETING 1: THE OCTOBER SURPRISE
The MOU had not specifically stated what duties would fall to whom under the structure of a regional hub, saying only that the parties would operate in good faith to expedite the process of negotiating a final operating agreement no later than June 30, 2021.
The document brought for consideration at the NETWORKS meeting, however, was very specific in stating that NETWORKS and NeTREP would not merge, and that traditional economic development functions for all counties involved would be handled by NETWORKS, which would be paid by those county governments under agreements similar to the current contract between NETWORKS and Hawkins County.
More than one member of the board referred to the MOU as “their” document (referring to NeTREP) despite the fact Walker was a co-author of the MOU.
The substitution of a new document for the MOU was met with a range of reactions from NETWORKS board members. Lea Powers, a Bristol city council member who has previously said she has trust issues with NeTREP, argued that a motion to approve the new document should specifically omit any mention of the MOU. She referred to the new document as “regionalism at its best.”
Private sector members of the board, however, had reservations about dropping consideration of the MOU altogether. Bristol Motor Speedway General Manager and Assistant Vice President Jerry Caldwell said, “I think this has to be in concert with the MOU. I think you send the wrong message if you don’t respond. I mean, we’ve been working on the MOU now for months and we’ve seen this document for 48 hours.”
Caldwell was critical of some of his fellow board members who were supporting the new document but had not been willing or able to provide input in the discussions leading up to the creation of the MOU. “I think this (new document) could be taken the wrong way – that we’re not interested because we have struggled to get some on our board to provide feedback. I think it’s important that the two are handled together if we’re truly trying to do this as a collaborative effort.
Eastman’s CeeGee McCord, who serves as secretary/treasurer for the NETWORKS board, agreed, saying, “I’m a little worried about how it will be perceived. A big part of building trust is communication. So, I do worry that if we don’t discuss this a little more with our regional partners that it will not go over very well. It does need to be aligned with the work that has gone on over the last couple of years.”
Calls for caution were not limited to the private sector. Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable referred to the other counties in northeast Tennessee and how they might view NETWORKS putting aside two years of work to put forth its own plan. “You’ve got eight partners looking down into this room. You’ve got to think about how they’re going to view this. This is a step that’s going to draw the attention of our partners and I don’t think we want them to see this as us sitting in a room at Northeast State and deciding the future of the region.”
In the end, Venable suggested the document be taken before the Sullivan County Commission before the NETWORKS board voted on it. Any significant changes to the NETWORKS structure must be approved by a 2/3 vote of the county commission, as well as the city and town governments of Bluff City, Bristol and Kingsport. The motion for NETWORKS to adopt the new document was tabled until after the county commission meeting.
Since the NETWORKS board took no action on either the MOU or its would-be replacement, NeTREP, officially, was offered no course of action to consider at its Thursday afternoon meeting.
MEETING 2: OTHER PRIORITIES
In a press conference after the Thursday afternoon, Oct. 15 NeTREP board meeting, which was closed to the public and media, NeTREP Chair Jeff Dykes said the board had voted to reaffirm its support of the principles behind the original MOU. “We are very supportive of that regional concept, and I think that support and positivity by our board was just to let those folks who have been – there’s groups that have been working on this hub for some time now, with the First Tennessee Development District and other public and private entities. We are very supportive of what they’re doing and hope to see that move forward to cover a larger district than just the area that we encompass here at NeTREP.”
Miller confirmed that Fuller had taken part in the meeting and had impressed upon the board that it was important to move forward with other areas of regional cooperation beyond traditional economic development. “There’s issues beyond industrial recruitment that we all have to focus on together. Mark really affirmed that just because something was not approved or our voice considered by NETWORKS, it shouldn’t stop engagement across the region. We’ve got to keep the bigger picture in mind in all that we do.”
Miller mentioned non-traditional economic development areas including tourism and entrepreneurship development as potential low-hanging fruit for regional cooperation.
Asked if the hub could be created without NETWORKS, Miller said not only could it be, but it could also be created without NeTREP. “Ultimately, if the public and private sectors can come together with a common goal of promoting this region for economic prosperity, then, yeah, it can be done because all it takes is a willingness to see it to fruition.”
Perhaps because so much time has been spent concentrating on the relationship between NeTREP and NETWORKS, there is now a real sense of urgency to move forward on other areas of regional cooperation, said Will Barrett, NeTREP’s immediate past-chair. “Now is the time to really advance the hub concept.”
MEETING 3: MEANWHILE, BACK IN BLOUNTVILLE
A few hours later, when the Sullivan County Commission began their discussions of the document that had been considered Tuesday by the NETWORKS board, Walker began by drawing a comparison between regional cooperation and learning to live with someone. Commissioner Todd Broughton said, “the difference is, to live with someone, you’ve got to like them. With this, everybody’s got their walls built. Everybody’s got their towers, and you’re not getting near them.”
“I’m not saying it’s easy,” Walker replied. “It’s not.”
Commissioner Angie Stanley told Walker, “I hope no one expects us to vote on something or be willing to merge with NeTREP. I think there needs to be a lot more conversations with us because, you know, a lot of us don’t know what is going on.”
To that point, Commissioner Mark Vance, who represents the commission on the NETWORKS board, said that he believed during the Tuesday meeting that he was being asked to vote to make changes to NETWORKS that instead should have been voted on by all the represented governments. Walker clarified that, no, Vance and the other NETWORKS board members were being asked to vote to begin the process that eventually would lead to those governments having their say.
“Well,” Vance said, “I think for the possibility of success of doing anything on a regional approach is that you’re going to have remove the ability of dissolving NETWORKS completely or of NeTREP becoming the lead northeastern Tennessee hub or the economic development source to go to this region.
“If we combined into a regional approach, it’s going to take an increased cost of doing all those tasks, and those governments – if Carter County were to come on board, they’re going to have to fund – there’s not going to be any additional funding from Sullivan County or Bristol or Kingsport or Bluff City to be marketing Washington County or Carter County.
“I don’t want it to get out into the public that Sullivan County does not want to do some regional things together,” Vance said, “but I think (the MOU would) completely dissolve NETWORKS, and I’m against that.”
Walker replied, “I would never support dissolving NETWORKS.”
Later, Walker told Stanley, “regionalism can be tremendous if done right. If it’s done wrong, stay away from it.”
“Well, I think we’ve spent two years or so on something that will never work anyway,” Vance said.
The commission took no action on the matter.