By Scott Robertson
Ron Ramsey, the Blountville-based auctioneer who represented Northeast Tennessee in both the State House and Senate before retiring from the position of lieutenant governor last year, has been hired by the Washington County Economic Development Council (WCEDC) to lobby for legislative appropriations for the Boones Creek interchange of Interstate 26 and Aerospace Park.
The hire came about after rumors spread that TDOT officials, upset over the Northeast Tennessee delegation to the state house having voted against the IMPROVE Act (which funds a myriad of TDOT projects) last year, were declining to consider the Boones Creek work until after 2019 at the earliest.
“In conversations I’ve had with him in the last month, Ron talked about an opportunity that he felt was there to secure funding for the Boones Creek interchange,” WCEDC CEO Mitch Miller said. “He felt he could secure that on behalf of Washington County and Johnson City.”
Ramsey has been doing good-faith work on behalf of the WCEDC for about two weeks already, Miller added. “He feels now that TDOT is very much in support of this project, but that it will take someone talking with the governor. There is potential because they have identified funding already, but it is something the governor is going to have to approve.”
The Aerospace Park portion of Ramsey’s duties could be a tougher sell.
The Tri-Cities Airport Authority is $4 million short of being able to fully fund a business park it hopes will bring high-paying jobs and capital investment to the region. That project, Aerospace Park, could potentially receive that funding from the Tennessee General Assembly in the 2018 session.
In considering the hire at the WCEDC board meeting Thursday, Johnson City Mayor David Tomita cautioned that, “there are a lot of moving parts,” with other entities already lobbying for those funds. “We don’t want to have someone negate something someone else is already doing.”
The Tri-Cities Airport Authority has hired a lobbying firm, Stones River, to attempt to secure the legislative appropriation, but Jon Smith, chairman of the authority said of the WCEDC proposal to bring on Ramsey, “Any support is greatly appreciated. Certainly we are still somewhat short on Aerospace Park in terms of what we can build out. We appreciate any support we can get. We are fortunate the cities and counties have already stepped up. So yes, we would like the help if that’s possible.”
“I share your concern,” Miller told Tomita. “I didn’t want to do anything to hurt the airport’s own efforts. But in talking with Patrick (Wilson, airport director), he said he would love to have Ron working alongside him. Considering Ron’s great relationships in Nashville, Patrick felt it would be important to have Ron working on this.”
Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said those relationships could be the key to the park’s success. “There is no one more influential with the state legislature than Ron Ramsey. In that regard, that’s bringing everything to the table we can bring to secure this funding.”
Tomita then made a motion the board hire Ramsey. That motion passed without dissent.
Ramsey will be paid $5,000 per month for a contract ranging between three and six months.