By now you have probably heard about the “Tennessee OnMe” tourism development program that was included in Governor Bill Lee’s budget but did not include Northeast Tennessee in its list of beneficiaries. It is less popular ‘round these parts than some viruses I could name.
The program set aside $2.5 million of taxpayer money to give 10,000 vouchers to out-of-state tourists willing to book a flight to Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis or Nashville and stay for two nights in a Tennessee hotel. The TRI was not included. Thus, Northeast Tennessee taxpayers are now subsidizing markets that compete with us for tourism dollars.
As Jerry Petzoldt of TCI Group said on social media, “AGAIN the state proves Tennessee stops at Knoxville. How disrespectful.”
After hearing such criticism of the program from not only Northeast Tennessee, but also from fiscal conservatives across the state, Governor Lee doubled down, telling reporters, “Always a lot of critics – that comes with politics…I’m glad we did it.”
You know what else comes with a lot of critics, governor? A really bad idea.
Believe me, even if the state backtracks and includes us retroactively, the slight it delivered to Northeast Tennessee will be remembered.
So, a few questions.
First, if Tennessee’s hotels and restaurants are unable to find enough employees right now, would it not have made more sense to put that $2.5 million toward helping them hire Tennesseans? Why are we begging out-of-staters to flock to businesses that aren’t staffed to handle the volume they already have?
Second, since this came from a published state budget, how did our northeast Tennessee legislative delegation fail to get our region into the program? Well, the specifics of the program were apparently never spelled out during budget hearings, and if you go to the budget document the state has posted online, you have to go to Volume 3 (most people don’t even know there is a Volume 3), where you’ll find, in the Cost Increase column on page 154, $2.5 million labelled, “grants & subs.” I’m not saying it was buried, per se. But it’s fair to say legislators would have had to know what they were looking for in order to know they needed to even be on the lookout for something.
Next, what was the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development thinking in leaving the TRI out of the program? Sure, the commissioner isn’t from around here, but how on earth does an entire department forget that it represents constituents in every part of the state?
Part of it comes down to who did the asking. When this was being put together to go into the budget, the “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. 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.”
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 regionalism has gained steam over the past few years. This debacle 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, “what can I do to help?”
Then we need, at long last, to do it.