FoundersForge co-founder David Nelson with BrightRidge CEO Jeff Dykes. PHOTO BY DAVE ONGIE
By Dave Ongie
Less than a month after StartupTri rebranded as FoundersForge, the entrepreneurial support effort held a summit at BrightRidge on Feb. 20.
The event featured an update on BrightRidge’s broadband rollout and provided entrepreneurs with the opportunity to share their new initiatives in a “Minute to Win It” format. Those with ideas for potential start-ups were able to pitch them to the folks in attendance, and FoundersForge co-founder David Nelson gave an update on progress being made in the effort to foster new start-up businesses in our region.
During the late-January press conference announcing the rebranding of FoundersForge, Nelson pointed toward an improving climate for entrepreneurship in our region and a more substantial feeling of regional cooperation as reasons for the rebranding effort. That positive momentum was certainly palpable in the BrightRidge conference room throughout the February summit meeting.
“It’s extremely exciting to see this happen, and it just feels like a powder keg ready to explode and take off,” Nelson said.
For Patrick Savage, the early-morning event was an excellent way to begin his fourth day as an entrepreneur. Savage recently left Bristol Motor Speedway to start Savage Creates, a creative services company.
While the timing was right personally for Savage to make the jump, he also cited several advantages he sees in doing business as an entrepreneur in our region. Savage said the combination of a low cost of living, access to high-speed Internet and ease of travel to Nashville, Knoxville and Asheville are factors that put him in a strong position to be competitive in the marketplace.
Savage recounted a recent conversation he had with a colleague who has had success landing clients in larger metropolitan areas thanks to the advantages our region affords.
“When they go to that area, they’re not competing on the same standard of living,” Savage said. “They’re able to come in and win a competitive bid because they’re located here. This is an amazing hub.”
The ability to telecommute will only become stronger once BrightRidge finishes rolling out its Broadband services. The utility is investing $66 million in a fiber-optic and Wi-Fi network that BrightRidge Chief Broadband Officer Stacy Evans said has “shortened the distance between Northeast Tennessee and the world.”
Inside our region, the chasms that used to separate municipal and county governments are also showing signs of narrowing as regionalism begins to gain some traction. A prime example came during an open discussion period late in the meeting when Jason Hudson, Kingsport’s economic development director, talked about the joy he feels when professionals in Johnson City or Bristol score a victory.
“My priority is Kingsport, but I sell this region,” Hudson said. “We’re selling our region, and we’ve all got our strengths. Knowing what everybody has is how we’re going to build this region and support it.”
Regionalism can mean many things to many people, but Nelson’s definition doesn’t differ very much from what was on display during the February summit meeting. Several business owners were in the same room, supporting the efforts of those who they could potentially compete with in the marketplace.
“It really is about coming together and working together for a common goal, but competing in a friendly way,” Nelson said. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
So far, tourism has been the main area where leaders in local government have shown a willingness to work together. But entrepreneurship is emerging as another area where municipal and county governments are starting to make some substantial investments in order to keep talented young professionals and recent college graduates inside our region.
Washington County mayor Joe Grandy was on hand at February’s summit meeting, and Johnson City mayor Jenny Brock has shown great interest in finding ways to make Downtown Johnson City more habitable for start-up businesses.
Gov. Bill Lee’s 2021 budget includes $5 million to renovate the historic Ashe Street Courthouse, which leaders in Johnson City, Washington County and ETSU hope to convert into an entrepreneurial incubator.
“I feel like our leadership right now is really seeing the opportunity and the potential of our space,” Nelson said.
“In a lot of ways, they’re driving us forward as much as the startup organizations and the startups themselves are. It’s amazing how we’ve all really started going in the same direction. We all have our different ways of doing it, and our own speeds, of course, but at the end of the day, the fact that we can all have this vision of what the future can be here will change this place.”