By Scott Robertson
We’ve written a lot recently about Aerospace Park, the business park at Tri-Cities Airport designed to attract new, high-paying jobs and capital investment to the region. There’s a good reason for that. The project could be of major economic impact on Washington and Sullivan counties, with a ripple effect into the surrounding counties as well. Unfortunately, it costs a lot of money to move dirt around, and there’s a hill on that site that needs to be moved into the valley next to it. The cities and counties that have a vested interest in the airport have put millions of dollars into funding that site preparation work. The Tennessee Valley Authority has put hundreds of thousands into it. That the Tennessee Department of Transportation was willing to put millions into it despite a chilly relationship with some Northeast Tennessee legislators is a testament to the importance of the project. Now (see page 2) Ron Ramsey, the former lieutenant governor, has been hired to lobby the state legislature to push the project across the finish line.
But fully funding the park is not the only thing the state government can do to help Northeast Tennessee taxpayers lead better lives. The prosperity of our region depends entirely on the capability of the workforce – the people. It’s great to see the governor working with key legislators to address the opioid issue. That effort, as we said in this space last week, is long overdue.
But opioids aren’t the only area where the people of Northeast Tennessee can use a hand up from state government, either. In reading the First Tennessee Development District’s Legislative Agenda Monday, I found a few other areas of note.
In the area of education and workforce development, the difference between the middle Tennessee “haves” and the more rural “have not” counties on the east and west borders of the state is not shocking, given the booming Nashville economy. When you have 100 people a day moving into a market, you can pay for a lot of good education. Likewise, when the population is in decline, as is the case in border counties, your workforce dollar has to go farther.
The FTDD is pushing for something that’s also being lobbied for by those far west Tennessee counties: Work Ready Community Certification (WRCC). The certification is a nationally recognized designation that provides evidence that there are strong community partnerships among education, industry, and economic development to strengthen the regional workforce. The system provides measurable data to demonstrate to employers the quality of the local labor pool. It shows that job seekers have verifiable skills essential in the workplace. Many employers in our region, including Mountain States (wait, is that Ballad yet?) and Eastman already recognize the value of the credential in their hiring process and are actively promoting its use.
Site Selection magazine, the bible of companies that major manufacturers hire to tell them where to locate their new plants, factories and corporate headquarters, uses NCRC numbers as part of their calculation of the best places to put a new business. So if the state requires the Tennessee Department of Education to recognize the NCRC as an industry credential – and funds opportunities for high school students to obtain the designation – it could make a world of difference in bringing higher paying jobs to areas including Northeast and Northwest Tennessee.
The FTDD agenda also mentions increasing funding from the state for housing prisoners in county jails, for treating the mentally ill, for providing conservatorship for the unfamilied elderly, and for meeting infrastructure needs.
Perhaps the best thing the state government can do for the region, though, is to simply do no harm. The FTDD agenda notes the need for the state to avoid creating any law that costs local or county governments money without providing a corresponding funding source. These laws are called unfunded mandates. Surely a state budget of $37.5 billion can be funded without tricks that put additional burden on county and local taxpayers for state-mandated projects.