Project X: A reasonably informed perspective on an emotional issue


Scott Robertson

In this space last week I congratulated the Washington County Commission for showing integrity in not potentially driving 150+ jobs out of the market.

Commissioners could easily have done so by publicly naming the company with whom the county industrial development board and the economic development council have been working. A confidentiality agreement keeps the name of the company from being released until a deal is reached or until the company announces plans to leave the county – the latter being a result economic developers have been working hard to avoid.

Should the company stay, it would invest $20 million and create 25 to 75 new jobs. Should it leave, Washington County would be looking to replace an $8 million payroll.

In hailing the commission’s collective integrity, I inadvertently did an injustice to Commissioner Robbie Tester, who after reading my column, called to let me know he did not know who the company was, and that he did not appreciate me making the inference that he did. Fair enough.

It was clear that some commissioners had a clear idea who they thought the company was/is when they voted 19-4 in favor of offering an incentive package. Commissioner Tester never gave any impression he was in that number.

Now let me say this regarding the company’s identity: while the EDC and the county government never breathed the name of the company aloud in my presence, it did not take tireless research to determine who the company must be. A check of the major employers list in The 2014 Book of Lists, published by our sister product, The Business Journal of Tri-Cities, TN/VA, cross-referenced with a couple of statements made about the company in the public record allowed virtually anyone to find the company’s identity two weeks before the County Commission vote.

So why did we not identify the company in a breathless story citing sparse identifiers as our sources? We did not have confirmation. You don’t run a story that could lead to the loss of 150 jobs in your community without confirmation. At least we don’t.

Which brings us to the Johnson City Press. The reporter who covered the commission meeting for The Press did not name the much-believed-but-unconfirmed company in his article Tuesday. A reporter who did not attend the meeting, however, did do so in Wednesday morning’s edition. It was not the first time this reporter has written about meetings he did not attend.

A friend of mine who read both my column and The Press article asked me, “If the commission showed integrity in not naming the company, what did The Press show in naming it?”

Decide for yourself. The Press had previously editorialized that the incentive package for Project X was, “pretty reasonable.” But in the same editorial, The Press called for more transparency.

It’s hard to believe The Press, a newspaper that happily reported on the NN Inc., expansion talks as “Project Stone” without a peep of protest (even after News & Neighbor and The Business Journal had run direct quotes from NN executives about the deal) would suddenly decide it could no longer abide the concept of confidentiality in economic development. The NN deal involved local and state incentives.

And why has The Press not been demanding Wellmont release the names of all its potential partners? The company announced it would start looking well over a year ago and we’ve heard nothing of The Press’ FOIA request for all information relating to that process.

The reason is simple. The Press knows economic development involves confidential discussions regarding public funds. It’s not new.

But once it started down the road of criticizing the Project X deal, The Press doubled down on its sudden amnesia regarding how economic development works. “Imagine buying a used car without first knowing the make, model or year,” The Press said in a subsequent editorial. “Would you simply trust the salesman and hand over your hard-earned cash?”

Casting the economic developers who work for the county as used car dealers is an insult as unfair as it is idiotic (with apologies to the upstanding used car dealers in the community). And which is it, Press? Do we know who the company is because we’ve been able to utilize our sparse identifiers to single it out, or do we have no idea because no one will tell us?

I only ask because if the company is who The Press said it is, then likening that company to a used car of unknown provenance is just silly. You can print reams of information on the company. And again, anyone with a Book of Lists, or access to Google, could come to the same conclusion The Press did in about 15 minutes.

Still, what galled me most was when The Press ran a piece on a businessman who claimed the county was “picking winners” by considering incentives to help his competitor in Project X.

First, the businessman in question had not told economic developers he had imminent plans to expand, and, according to County Commissioner Todd Hensley, who spoke with the businessman after reading the article in The Press, the businessman actually has no firm expansion plans.

Second, you may remember last year when the state of Tennessee gave $10 million to Eastman Chemical Co., to incent the company to expand its Kingsport headquarters rather than move out of state. Well imagine if you read a story in which the owner of Cedar Grove Chemicals in Dyersburg said the state was unfairly choosing between Tennessee chemical companies (of course this never happened). It would be absurd. Yet somehow The Press decided to stir the pot by pretending the businessman in question was being discriminated against in a similar situation.

Finally, The Press, in an editorial, said, “There are indications that some commissioners were informed of the company’s identity before the vote. Others were not. That’s disturbing.”

I find it disturbing that The Press makes such allegations without explaining what these indications are/were. I was at the meeting. I saw what I would consider to be indications some commissioners believed they knew who the company was. I saw no indications that they had been told. The Press believes it was smart enough to figure it out on its own. Does it believe county commissioners who have a packet of information about the deal aren’t smart enough to do the same thing?

I understand that for many people, nothing will trump the fact that they didn’t get told the name of the company before the commission voted to spend the money (if the deal goes through). But to pretend the whole project was fraught with secrecy after three different newspapers, one radio station group and a television station reported deal points that had been laid out in half a dozen public meetings is inaccurate at best, and frankly, it’s dishonest.



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