By Scott Robertson
As I tucked into what would prove to be the most delicious lunch I’ve ever had at the Millennium Centre Friday, I knew I’d hear from Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge, probably about how the county has handled its sizeable debt load during his eight years in office. I knew I’d hear from Johnson City Mayor David Tomita about the city’s progress in taking two flood zones and a blighted hillside and turning them into two parks and a mountain biking area. I knew I’d hear from Jonesborough Mayor Chuck Vest, probably about what great shape Kelly Wolfe had left the town in as it moved forward into a new era. Wolfe’s sudden resignation in March hadn’t left Vest with much time to work up anything else.
What I didn’t know was that the Chamber of Commerce Serving Johnson City, Jonesborough and Washington County (hereafter referred to as the Johnson City Chamber) – whose event had brought the mayors together in the first place – would end up providing the biggest news of all once the mayors had spoken.
Andy Dietrich serves as the volunteer chair of the Johnson City Chamber, and this year he is joined on the Johnson City Chamber board by the volunteer chairs of the Kingsport Chamber (Bob Feathers) and the Bristol Chamber (Jerry Caldwell). In fact, all three chairs sit on the boards of the other two chambers this year. 2018 marks the first time that’s ever happened.
Dietrich made it clear to the attendees of the City-County-Town Luncheon that he and the chairs of the other two chambers believe the days of each of the three cities trying to pirate businesses away from the others are over.
“We know there is more to do to remain competitive here with those places that seek the same results we do,” Dietrich said, listing, “good jobs, expansion of existing business and industry, new business growing our visitor industry, entrepreneurial friendly and quality of life that is second to none.
“And by the way,” Dietrich added, “our competition is not anyone 15 miles from here – also known as Bristol and Kingsport.”
Just to be clear, those words would have been considered heresy in many quarters of all three Chambers not so long ago. In some quarters, they probably still are. But Dietrich and apparently Feathers and Caldwell believe those quarters are dwindling in size and influence.
So, if our competition is not Bristol and Kingsport anymore, who is it?
“It is now Roanoke; Cleveland and Bradley County, Tennessee; Clarksville, Tennessee; and those cities of like size in South and North Carolina,” Dietrich said.
The three Chamber chairs have been in talks for months about how to not just pay lip service to regionalism, but rather to make it work for all three cities, Dietrich told the crowd. “We knew we would be engaged in conversations that would have the potential of positioning us for the future where we tout the pluses we have separately, which when added together, gives a grand total of assets for businesses to remain here and come here. It’s called regionalism.”
Dietrich said the Chambers were discussing the creation of a tagline and/or logo that all three can use in creating an over-arching brand, “that can distinguish us from our true competition and enable us to have those ‘Big R’s’ for results instead of the ‘Little R’s’ for reasons why we did not land that business deal or why we missed out on that project.”
I’ve covered business in the Tri-Cities since 1992. I know about several of those lost deals. And I know what negatives are likely headed our way if our three cities continue undercutting each other in a race to the bottom.
So, while I’d loved to have used this space to talk about the county’s fiscal responsibility, the city’s forward-thinking land-use plans, and the continuing vitality of Tennessee’s oldest town, the biggest message I can bring you from the fourth annual City-County-Town Luncheon is: Now more than ever, support your local chamber.