Photo above: Jerry Caldwell, Bob Feathers and Andy Dietrich at the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, June 12. Photo by Scott Robertson
By Scott Robertson
On June 12, representatives of each of the Chambers of Commerce serving Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport met at the Kingsport Chamber building with the CEOs of the region’s two multi-county economic development organizations: NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership, which serves Sullivan and Hawkins counties, and the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, which serves Carter, Unicoi and Washington counties. The topic was regionalism, with a focus on how to best maximize the strengths of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia without threatening productive economic development efforts already underway.
After that meeting, the chairs of the three Chambers, Jerry Caldwell from Bristol, Andy Dietrich from Johnson City and Bob Feathers from Kingsport, sat down with The Business Journal to discuss the outcomes from the meeting, including potential next steps, low-hanging fruit for early successes, and pitfalls to avoid.
The Business Journal: What do the three chambers, working together, look to accomplish in the short term? Each of you will be chair of your respective chamber through the end of the year. What can be accomplished in that period of time?
Jerry Caldwell: I think No. 1 has just been communication and collaborating. We’re spending more time together and being intentional with knowing what’s going on in each chamber and how we can work together on those things. It’s pretty simple, but I think it has been a great move. We just are all in the room together a lot more than what I believe has been happening in the past. We’re in the same room at chamber meetings at least once a month, sometimes more than that. We’ll all be together twice this week.
Bob Feathers: I think there is an accountability that has been created in all three organizations. You don’t get a lot of the little snide remarks that we used to hear a lot. I like the word vision.
Andy Dietrich: I was born and raised here and I am excited to see that maybe we can get something started that gets some momentum. We need our population growth heading in a positive direction. The other positive thing is that the three of us are all friends. It just happened that we all became chairs of our chambers in the same year. It was just sort of meant to be. We agreed early on, since we’re all buddies, to figure out something we can work together on. This just sort of fit. It’s been awesome so far. We started small and it has just started to get traction.
BJ: So at the end of the year, how will you measure success? What do you hope to be able to look back on and say you accomplished?
Feathers: Today we discussed the MSA. That’s really going to be a focus here until the end of the year. Legislatively we really have to push to get a common MSA. I think that’s huge. I think getting the right players to the table and defining what the region really is – and frankly I think just having common data and analytics will let us know where we really are – I’ve said this repeatedly – depending on where you get your data, you may see the same things differently. You may have one source saying employment is up while another says down. It’d be nice to know where we are across the region, across the demographics. I typically look at GDP and it has been the same number for a decade. To me that’s a massive decline. There just needs to be one basis for us to know the truth. It’d be nice if we had the same picture. Then we’d know where to move.
Caldwell: Success to me, is addressing those same issues, but success to me is creating something that is sustainable, that lives past us and pulls regional leaders into a room around a conversation. That might look different ways. I don’t think any of us have defined what that looks like, but something that pulls us all into the room as a region and creates a conversation that moves us forward instead of us each having conversations in which we all come up with the same plan separately and all create the same thing. We don’t need to duplicate efforts. We need to pull these conversations all into one room. And again, that needs to be sustainable and go on past us.
Dietrich: To that end, one of the things we decided today was we’re going to bring the next chairs of the boards – we already know who’s coming in next year – they’re going to start coming to these as the table gets bigger. It won’t be just throwing them into the fire next year, and the three of us have agreed to stay at that table to help continue this. We won’t be chairs. We’ll be past-chairs, but we’ll stay a part of this and see it through.
Feathers: Well, the government committees of each chamber will need to put their stamp on that and say, ‘This is what we want.’ I don’t think it’s going to be an issue, but our three CEOs were hoping that would be the case.
BJ: So, sort of an emeritus status for each of you to keep continuity of effort through institutional memory for at least the next 18 months.
Feathers: Right. And I think we could make that a formal committee that we’re all on that carries this banner forward.
BJ: So in addressing what this looks like as it goes forward, the Chambers are not the economic development groups for the region. So if I hear you correctly, you all are trying to play a role in economic development support.
Caldwell: You guys chime in and correct me, but I think what has happened is, and Bob, you said this very well earlier, as a business community, we have come together and said, ‘Hey, we need to be a region. We need to take a different approach.’ What exactly that approach is, I don’t think we have defined yet. But if we want to get different results, we have to operate in a different way, and we have to be doing that together. We’re going to accomplish a lot more working as one than we are separated into these great little communities. What that looks like right now from an economic development standpoint, we don’t have that defined yet. But we know we need to be working together to grow. So the Chambers are really just playing a role here. This isn’t a Chamber driven thing, really. It’s more of a business community driven thing.
Feathers: The Chambers represent the broadest spectrum of the businesses in the entire region. Our three groups represent well over 2,000 businesses. Collectively speaking then, from my perspective, policy needs to follow that. We are electing people. If that becomes a hindrance the business community needs to fix that. The business community needs to lead the charge forward. It’s the business community saying collectively, ‘Hey, we need to be a region.’
Caldwell: It’s really just a conversation right now – a business-led conversation around ideas. There’s not a plan in place right now. There will be. But it is a conversation, and we welcome people into that conversation. It’s a conversation on how we get better. It’s a conversation about opportunities and not rear-view mirror.
Feathers: It’s really more of a vision. I mean, I think we can paint a common vision people can get behind. That will grow.
Dietrich: One of the neat things for me lately when people see the editorials and magazine articles is them telling me, ‘I’ve never really thought about that, but it’s something we need to do. You know, even with The Business Journal preaching about this for 30 years, I still feel my role right now is educational. I’m explaining to people what regionalism is and what baby steps we need to take. I’ve had a ton of questions like, ‘How can I help?’ and ‘What do I need to do?’ here in the last few weeks.
BJ: You mentioned the MSA effort. John Speropulos and Don Fenley have both put out good work on that. Don wrote a good piece last month on why that won’t be a quick fix. The bureaucrats in the federal government who define MSAs have their numbers in place. But bureaucrats answer to elected officials, and elected officials take their marching orders from us, the citizens, the voters, and especially the business community. So are we hearing you say the Chambers are going to be speaking on behalf of the business community with elected officials to get that ball rolling?
Feathers: In short, I’d say that’s spot on.
BJ: So do you have a timeline or details as to what that process looks like?
Feathers: Again, I think our three Chambers collectively do a lot politically anyway. This will be one more initiative that we’re going to see being championed –
Caldwell: – with a lot of other folks at the table. We need to pull more folks in. Yes, these three Chambers are important pieces, but we need more Southwest Virginia representation. We need to go a little further into Tennessee as well. So there will be more people at the table for that conversation.
BJ: We keep hearing about the Ballad Health service area (Greeneville, Tenn., in the west and Marion, Va., in the east) as a potential footprint for the region. Is that along the lines of what you’re thinking right now?
Caldwell: I don’t know if that’s what the MSA will look like. I think we’ll get there through more conversations, but we certainly view that as the region.
Dietrich: The Ballad footprint may be a good starting point. It may not be that large at the end of the day, but it’s a great starting point.
Caldwell: I would just go back to what I said before. Our effort is to make this a very inclusive and intentional conversation. This is not about shutting the door and keeping people out. We would say to everyone, ‘If you have thoughts, share them with us. Share them with us individually or as the Chamber, others that are involved.’ The purpose of this is to say, ‘We’re all better together.’ When you say that, you want all those voices. We want everybody at the table and on board because we are stronger together. I’ve used an example before: I view this like my children. I have four children. They’re all Caldwells. What’s good for the family is most important. They can’t do things that are going to be detrimental to the family. Having said that, I also want all four of them to keep their individual identities. I want my children to be who they are, but remember the greater good of all. That’s what we’re saying here. All these communities keep their identities. They are great communities each in their own right. But we have to focus on the greater good of all.
Dietrich: There are several people who have brought up concerns, such as people in the outlying communities who feel they are already being left out. I think the need is to understand that we’re not starting big and going bigger. We have had a couple of meetings in which there have only been six of us (the chairs and CEOs of the Chambers). Today’s meeting was nine people. In our next meeting, each of us is going to invite three to five people from each Chamber or from the economic development arm. It’s going to grow. We can’t dive right in with 50 people at the table at the start, or we’ll never get anything accomplished. So it’s going to be slow baby steps for a while. Baby steps.
Feathers: Jerry, what you said is spot on. This is inclusive. There is no intention to leave any one organization, person or entity out. The conversations are happening as we can have them.
Dietrich: It is exciting that I have had individuals, presidents of universities and colleges, businesspeople, stop me and say they want to have a seat at the table. It’s exciting that there is such enthusiasm for this.
Caldwell: The other thing we all recognize is this is something that will not end at the end of our terms with the Chambers. This is a long-term effort. This is from now forward. We know that. These are not things that are going to be answered in 60, 90, 120 days or six months. This will take much longer than that.
Dietrich: And once we do get a plan, we have to stick to it. Our communities and our region have to stick to it.