By Scott Robertson
The state of Tennessee just did our region an injustice. In a move that’s been in the works long enough to have hired Brad Paisley to record a video hyping it, the Tennessee Department of Tourism announced it is offering $2.5 million in $250 vouchers to travelers who will stay for two nights in a Tennessee hotel, if they fly into Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis or Nashville. That’s in the state budget, so we paid for it. We, that is, here in the Tri-Cities, saw our tax dollars used to promote the idea of travelling to somewhere else in the state. We’re subsidizing markets that compete with the Tri-Cities for tourism dollars.
As Jerry Petzoldt of TCI Group said on social media, “AGAIN the state proves Tennessee stops at Knoxville. How disrespectful.”
So, if we’re blamestorming…
First, since this got in the budget, how did our northeast Tennessee delegation neglect to get our region into the program? Personally, I don’t like the program. I think it will just subsidize a lot of trips to Nashville that would have been taken anyway. But if the state budget is going to fund a program to subsidize tourists – a program that will take dollars out of our region’s hospitality related businesses’ pockets and give them to businesses elsewhere in the state – how did our legislators not get the businesses they represent in on the action?
Next on the blamestorming parade, the Tennessee Department of Tourism. Commissioner Mark Ezell’s bio reads, “born and raised in Middle Tennessee. He received his bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb University and completed his master’s degree at Tennessee Technological University.” So, it’s possible he doesn’t always think of northeast Tennessee as often as he thinks of middle Tennessee. But still, how on earth does an entire department forget that it represents constituents in every part of the state?
When this was being put together to go into the budget, this “Tennessee on me” program, or as I call it, “four of the 415 cities and towns in Tennessee – on all 415 of us” was not spearheaded by either the airports or the airlines. It was pushed by the hoteliers and restaurateurs.
The state hospitality association is called HospitalityTN. The members of this organization are the hospitality industry lobbying groups from the cities served by the airports in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville. There’s nobody from northeast Tennessee in that august body. So, when the state was being lobbied by the hospitality industry to create this program, nobody from northeast Tennessee was in the room. As Gary Mabrey loved to say when he headed up the Johnson City Chamber, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
This being the case, when we complain about not being represented, perhaps we might do well to realize that if we’d had our act together as well as every other region in the state when this program was being built, we probably wouldn’t have been left out.
This is precisely why the Business Journal has been pushing regionalism since 1988. This is a prime example of how northeast Tennessee’s failure to speak with one regional voice costs us money.
But, here’s the thing.
It’s not enough for us to realize we as a region may have played a part in our own downfall in this instance. It’s not even enough to ask why every other region in the state has a hospitality lobbying group and we don’t. It’s not even enough to ask why the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association is woefully underfunded year after year after year.
What we need to be asking is, “how do we fix it? How do we make it so Nashville never again forgets the gem that is northeast Tennessee? And finally, what can I do to help?”
Then we need, at long last, to do it.