It’s a simple fact that what we think of as our local economy isn’t local at all. It is regional. And for that economy to grow, our economic and community development efforts have to be about bringing jobs and investment in from outside the region – and keeping our own jobs from leaving the region.

Northeast Tennessee has simply not yet shown the private sector what it needs to see in order to bring great numbers of higher paying jobs here. If you doubt that, check this year’s Book of Lists from The Business Journal. Only five of the ten largest employers in the region are private sector companies, and to say there is discrepancy between the wages paid at those five businesses is an understatement.

The biggest thing employers need is a qualified, trainable, reliable workforce. When we go community by community or county by county, we simply don’t have the scale to give those high-paying companies the people they need. “If I have three people quit in a week,” the company considering a move to the region will ask, “will you have the people I need ready to replace them?” Well, if the answer to that question only includes the population of one community, the answer is probably “no.” But if we can speak as a region, our chances of giving that employer what he needs are far greater.

Some folks are fearful of taking a regional approach because they fear their elected officials will start putting someone else’s well-being above their own. I understand that sense of caution. In fact, there’s a historical parallel.

I would have thought the same way about the world that Charles Lindbergh did right before World War II. In 1940, while the British and French were fighting Hitler, but before Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh made speeches all over the country saying our boys didn’t need to fight somebody else’s war. But eventually the war did come to our soil, and we were forced to fight. We were forced to stand by those who would ally with us. With the help of God above, we won, and we didn’t lose a shred of our sovereignty in the process.

Well, because we are in the midst of a now-nine-year economic expansion, we haven’t had our Pearl Harbor moment yet. Because the US economy continues to grow, we only see a stagnation of our local economy. But the US economy won’t grow forever. And there is not a community among us that can even keep pace in a bad economy if we can’t grow in an historically good one.

Communities the size of ours here in Northeast Tennessee must come together to create alliances with great enough scale to bring in better jobs, or other unified regions and larger communities will continue to take away our companies. There is no middle ground. Think I’m exaggerating? NN Inc., whose corporate headquarters left Johnson City for Charlotte last year, just received the Charlotte Chamber Award for New Corporate Citizen of the Year.

Our communities must come together as allies to compete in this war for jobs – and we need to do it before the next recession Pearl Harbors us.


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