By Scott Robertson
In 1988, our sister publication (then called The Business Journal of Upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia) became a leading voice for a regional economic development approach in this end of the state. At the time, there was a common sentiment that the state legislature and governor’s office believed East Tennessee ended at Knoxville, and those of us who lived “east of Orange” really didn’t matter. Acting as separate entities, Johnson City, Washington County and every other municipality in Northeast Tennessee consistently failed to get help from the state when it came to attracting jobs and capital investment from private companies.
As the years have passed, regions in the state that have worked together, such as the counties surrounding Nashville, have grown their economies while Northeast Tennessee communities continued to play small ball. It has been repeatedly proven that a regional economic development approach works. A company would far rather locate where communities around them are unified in making the entire region a great place to do business, rather than in communities that snipe at each other, trying to force the business to take sides in petty squabbles that don’t help it in any way.
Today the communities of Northeast Tennessee are finally beginning to work together of their own accord, and the early returns are encouraging. The formation of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership (NeTREP) has brought the economic development efforts of Carter, Unicoi and Washington counties together under one roof. Representatives from the newly formed alliance recently travelled to Blue Ridge, Ga., together to see how that community grew a thriving economy based on apples, strawberries and tourism. It was nice to see the counties working together, but also to see them admitting that even in areas where they have expertise, they can still learn from the best practices of others.
Just so, when Tourism Coordinator Kayla Carter called to order the Carter County Accommodation Summit at Roan Mountain State Park on the afternoon of April 25, most of the faces you’d expect to find were in attendance. There was Dave Jones, regional director from the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. There was Alicia Phelps, executive director of the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association.
But right next to them was Mitch Miller, CEO of the Washington County Economic Development Partnership, who until the recent formation of NETREP, would have been as out of place as a McDonald’s on a mountaintop. “A big part of the economic opportunity for this region deals with outdoor recreation,” Miller told the operators of tourist accommodations in Carter County. “Carter and Unicoi counties have so much to offer beyond just pad-ready sites for industrial development.”
“Take where we are right now, for instance,” Miller said. “Roan Mountain State Park. Places like this are very attractive for the Millennial generation to come here and enjoy what makes this place special – to fill a job, say, at NN Inc., and be less than 30 minutes away from something as beautiful as Roan Mountain or Beauty Spot in Unicoi County.
“So we’re focused on unifying our approach because at the end of the day we can all relate to jobs, and we all understand there are a lot of assets in this community tied to the outdoors and recreation.”
Lest one get the idea that NeTREP is only about trails, strawberries, apples and bike paths, though, it’s important to go back earlier in the day to an event hours before the Accommodation Summit. Because in Johnson City that morning, the NeTREP staff meeting was the forum for discussions on everything from Elizabethton’s Small Business Week promotion to the strategic planning process for Erwin, Unicoi and Unicoi County to the pending completion of the Mountain Harvest Food Kitchen. Around the table for that meeting were Miller; Tyler Engle, executive director at the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County; Jon Hartman, planning and economic development director for the city of Elizabethton; and Mike Housewright, city recorder for the town of Unicoi, among others.
Perhaps the most exciting news out of that meeting was that NeTREP will be reaching out to the NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership, which has been working with Hawkins County in a fashion similar to the NeTREP alliance, to find common ground. Sullivan County’s efforts in creating a super-regional approach with economic development groups throughout East Tennessee is a great example of the region moving in the right direction.
The more common ground our economic developers find, the better our chances of bringing better jobs to the region. Fifty years ago, it made sense for Washington County to compete with Sullivan County for jobs. Now, however, the game has changed. It’s literally Northeast Tennessee against the world. Each of the Northeast Tennessee counties knows the others make worthy adversaries. Now it’s time to test each other’s mettle as allies.