Split Decision: Sullivan Commission rejects NETNHub, NeTREP votes to join

Mitch Miller, Dennis Phillips and Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable

By Dave Ongie, Managing Editor

The Sullivan County Commission overwhelmingly rejected membership in a proposed regional economic development hub during their meeting on Thursday.

Commissioners voted 22-1-1 in support of the resolution, which stated that Sullivan County would not fund the proposed NETNHub or be included as a member. The crux of the opposition to the current framework of NETNHub was that NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership, an economic development organization funded by the county and its municipalities, would lose its autonomy by folding into NETNHub.

Clay Walker, CEO of NETWORKS, told the Business Journal that the vote was by no means a referendum against regional cooperation. Instead, it expressed a strong desire for NETWORKS to be able to cooperate with the Hub while maintaining its autonomy. 

“While the resolution put forward by some 20 commissioners (and voted on favorably by 22 of the 24) made very strong statements about the commission’s confidence in NETWORKS, I don’t think it slams the door on working with others,” Walker said. “In fact they have encouraged such efforts we’ve made in the past. I have talked to most all of the commissioners collectively and individually over the years on the effectiveness of regional collaboration, as long as it makes sense for everyone involved. The plans NETWORKS have presented would accomplish that. I hope that the NETNHub will look at this as an opportunity to collaborate and not approach this as a takeover so that we can move forward more in line with what other successful such programs have done.”

Following the vote, NETNHub released a statement on Sullivan County’s decision. “While we are disappointed the commission declined to learn the current facts of the situation before acting, this is more a bump in the road than a roadblock. Today the hub brought on two additional economic development professionals and just short of $300,000 in additional funding. This increased capacity will allow us to accelerate our short-term action plan. Regardless of the naysayers, the results we produce will demonstrate the value the commission tonight chose to ignore.”

Indeed, NETNHub announced prior to the vote in Sullivan County that the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership (NeTREP) – an economic development organization serving Washington, Unicoi and Carter counties – had formally voted in favor of folding its operations into the Hub. 

The vote by the NeTREP board will see that organization cease to exist on Feb. 28, with its assets being redistributed. The financial assets of NeTREP will be split between the Hub and the Washington County Economic Development Council (WCEDC), which will continue to handle economic development matters specific to the county.

As part of the blend, NeTREP CEO Mitch Miller will become the Chief Operating Officer for the Hub while Michelle Black will serve as Director of Programing and Engagement.

“The transition should be very smooth,” Miller said in a statement. “Both organizations are public-private partnerships with a vision for better lives for everyone in the region. I anticipate you’ll see a lot of people and businesses that supported NeTREP take a strong interest in the Hub.”

In terms of funding, the Hub will receive $125,000 to be used in implementing its short-term operating plan. In addition, the WCEDC will hold $170,000 to be used in concert with the Hub on regional marketing. The remainder of the roughly $550,000 in the NeTREP accounts will go toward costs associated with disbanding the organization, including an audit, and to the WCEDC for operations.

During a meeting of NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership’s executive committee last month, the prospect of NETWORKS folding into the Hub was deemed an impossibility by Erin Downs, chairperson of NETWORKS’ regionalism committee. Downs said a joint venture proposal from the Hub to NETWORKS last fall required the organization to cede control by folding its staff into the Hub and diverting its funding to the new regional entity.

“The funding that is coming into NETWORKS would no longer come into NETWORKS for operations, so we wouldn’t have any money to perform our function,” Downs said. “It also commits the cities and the county to fund the Hub, which of course NETWORKS can’t do.”

Bill Argabrite, the attorney for NETWROKS, concurred that the organization, according to its own bylaws, is prohibited from committing future county or city funds to the Hub.

“We cannot amend the intergovernmental agreement,” Argabrite said. “This is the charter of NETWORKS. It can only be amended by the cities and the county, and it has to be unanimous among the cities and the county.”

Following the NeTREP announcement, Dennis Phillips, CEO of the Hub, reiterated his belief that the region needs to speak in a unified voice in order to reach its potential. 

“Being able to speak with one unified voice is so important to the future of our region,” he said in a statement. “We appreciate the NeTREP board’s vision and desire to improve the economy for everyone.”

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