By Scott Robertson
Editor’s Note: A full account of the Regional Economic Forum can be found in the September edition of the Business Journal of Tri-Cities Tennessee/Virginia.
From the outset, the inaugural Regional Economic Forum at the Millennium Center Sept. 10 focused on a single message: Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia’s economy has not kept up with the national economy for the last decade, and though it may prove painful at times, public, private and social sector organizations must jointly commit to the changes necessary to improve that economy or face dire consequences.
“We all know we cannot continue to do the same old things the same old way and expect to get better results,” added Washington County, Tenn., Mayor Joe Grandy, reporting on the progress of the Mayors’ Blue Ribbon Task Force.
Grandy and Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable created the task force with five workgroups (entrepreneurial business development and recruitment, existing business development and retention, workforce excellence, regional tourism and primary job recruitment) to examine the potential benefits of taking a regional approach where work is already being done on local levels. “The preliminary indications are that existing programs will be greatly strengthened through a regional focus,” Grandy said. A full report from the Task Force is expected in the next few weeks.
ETSU’s Dr. Brian Noland and Dr. Jon Smith tag-teamed a presentation of facts regarding the regional economy as it stands today. Civilian employment showed disappointing data for the region. “The Northeast Tennessee workforce is shrinking,” Smith said. “This is a bad picture. We have a problem with workforce declining. We have a problem with people not coming into our communities to try to replace that with.”
“This is painful information,” Noland concluded, “but it’s reality in the world we call home. This has been the most prosperous decade in my lifetime for the state of Tennessee, but that decade passed us by.”
Consultant Mark Fuller of Rosc Global told the forum, “Our economic development system in this region is not delivering.”
“If you look at the precisely defined economic governance system here,” Fuller said, “is it’s quite complex. It’s very fragmented and insufficient. Most of the institutions that have been attempting economic development lack scale. There’s been far too much destructive local rivalry, far too little adequate productive cooperation.”
Fuller also said the solution needs to come through collaboration, not dictatorially. “There needs to be voice. There needs to be transparency. There has to be engagement. This cannot just be mandated.”
Fuller’s recommended general areas for next steps were:
• Building and sustaining competitive clusters around existing strengths such as advanced materials manufacturing, health care and tourism
• Reform the existing economic development system with an umbrella organization to address issues of collaboration, entrepreneurship and marketing
• Engaging relevant regional actors in relevant ways
• Upgrading the workforce
• Encouraging entrepreneurship
• Improving the marketing of the region
Eastman CEO Mark Costa said economic development reform is a necessity. “We are not remotely configured to compete and win, and we’re so far from it that if we don’t do something radically different, we’re not going to actually succeed. It’s just that simple.”
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee then addressed the forum, focusing his remarks on rural economic development in general and Northeast Tennessee in particular. “Your real strength lies in being a region that has a great group of really valuable assets. When those are brought forward together, it’s going to be not only a powerful marketing tool, but also a really powerful operational tool for bringing about real change.”
“I think it’d be beneficial to have a collaborative structure too, in the way that you engage so that there’s unified voices,” Lee said. “Unified voices are much more powerful than 15 different voices coming from 15 different directions.”