By Dave Ongie
Back in 1934, with the nation in the throes of the Great Depression, leaders from around our region came together and got the ball rolling on the construction of Tri-Cities Regional Airport.
Just a shade over 80 years later, elected officials from around the region have banded together once again to embark on another major project. Mayors from Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City, along with their counterparts from Washington and Sullivan Counties, signed a regional partnership agreement last Wednesday backing an $8.5 million bond that will help make a proposed Aerospace Park a reality.
“The Tri-Cities Regional Airport has always been an example of regional cooperation since its creation,” said Dr. Jon Smith, the chairman of the TCAA. “The development of an aerospace park is an important example of continuing efforts by our city and county commissioners to come together for a common goal to try to attract quality jobs.”
The 160-acre tract of land located adjacent to the airport is expected to attract a bevy of high-paying jobs to the region, which appeals to Washington County mayor Dan Eldridge.
“You know the concern I have about our region, the concern about creating opportunities for companies to come to our region to take risks, to invest, to create jobs,” Eldridge said.
Thanks to an aviation maintenance technology program offered at Northeast State Community College, there will be a pool of trained workers in our area prepared to take those jobs once companies start developing the 160-acre site. Twenty-one acres of the site are certified through the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development as a Select Tennessee Site, making it the first airport site in Tennessee to receive this certification.
While the going was tough at times as the individual city and county governments tried to pull in the same direction, Eldridge believes the Aerospace Park could be the start of something big.
“This step that has been taken is really a big step, to me, for two reasons,” he said. “Number 1, because it presents such an opportunity for quality job creation in the Tri-Cities. Number 2, and this probably means more than anything else, we have created a template not only for cooperation among the local governments in this region, but we’ve created a template for investment.
“Local governments have put $8.5 million in this project. For me, this is a foundation for us to build on. There will be other opportunities for us to work together, to cooperate, to make investments that make our region better. I think a big part of what we’re doing here today is celebrating the opportunity this is providing us.”
In a lighthearted moment after the papers were signed, Johnson City mayor David Tomita reached over and put his arm around Kingsport mayor John Clark. It was symbolic of the cooperation that has been shown by the two cities, which routinely compete with each other and Bristol to attract businesses and residents to their respective city limits.
The level of cooperation that it took to make the Aerospace Park a reality didn’t come easily, but Tomita seemed satisfied with the results last Wednesday.
“You’re going to hear a lot today about cooperation, collaboration and partnerships, and that’s a great thing,” Tomita said. “What we’ve done here is something that does not come easily. Those papers … There’s a lot of blood, sweat, tears and emotion in those papers. We’re proud to be here executing them today.”
On the table in the back of the room where the papers were signed sat a black and white photo of the regional leaders who banded together back in 1934 to build the airport everyone was standing in last Wednesday. Tomita marveled at their vision, and was hopeful the latest regional partnership can make a similar positive impact.
“In years to come, there will be a picture of us,” Tomita said. “We won’t look as good as those folks, but maybe our children and grandchildren will look at it and be proud of what we did.”