By Scott Robertson
I’ve just put the finishing touches on the cover story for the January issue of News & Neighbor’s sister publication, The Business Journal, an article about Susan Reid and the Johnson City-based First Tennessee Development District (FTDD). Because the Journal’s audience is primarily business owners and operators, the piece focuses on what the district does that has a direct impact on business in the region. But in talking with Reid and those who work with her, I was struck by how much good the district does that has a far more broad impact.
To understand the breadth of what the district does, one first needs to know that its scope is all of Northeast Tennessee, not just Washington County. There are several districts across the state, and the first is one of the best respected among them. Perhaps chief among the reasons for that is Reid. She has been with the district since Spiro Agnew was a heartbeat away from the presidency. When she became director Berlin still had a Wall.
In that time, Reid has built a reputation for integrity. She has existed for decades in a world in which politics and good deeds function side by side. Her credibility is such that Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge (who recently served as chair of the district) says, “If she calls the governor’s office, the governor takes her call, and is genuinely interested in whatever she has to say.”
The Journal article talks at length about the FTDD’s loan and grant programs that have helped business owners create jobs and grow prosperity in the region. But the district’s most admirable work, at least in my opinion, has less to do with business than with helping our fellow residents of the region.
For instance, it took years to get potable water for the citizens of the Little Milligan community. But the district staff was nothing if not determined. Says Reid, “There were families there that had to haul drinking water from a creek. The kids talked about the little wiggly things in their water. But one thing our staff does not do is give up. They are always persistent.”
Programs for the elderly are a large part of what the district’s staff of 47 oversees. In fact, well over half the staff is devoted to making life better for the region’s growing population of seniors.
“It has bothered us – in fact, it has more than bothered us – for a long, long time that we have so many people on waiting lists for the services including meals,” Reid says. “We have 1,000 people in our region on a waiting list for meals.”
Think about that for a moment. Every meal you and I sit down and eat, there are 1,000 seniors nearby who may or may not have the same opportunity. The district works to help them.
Says Reid, “Kathy Whitaker, our director of programs for the aging, has developed a program called Extend a Hand. She’s working with churches. They make extra meals to deliver to seniors. She hears comments like, ‘This is the only meat I’ll get to eat this week.’ It just breaks your heart. We’re looking for new ways to provide more meals and more services than what the allocation of funds we get can provide.”
A statewide program administered locally by the district is aimed at helping seniors save money and dignity. “The Choices program saves a huge amount of money,” Reid says. “We’re able to order in-home services for elderly that have been certified as nursing home eligible, but prefer to stay at home. That saves more than $26,000 a year.”
Reid doesn’t have the figures at her fingertips for how many people are served by the Choices program in the FTDD, but statewide it’s 30,000. Multiply $26,000 times 30,000 people, there’s a lot of money being saved by people who are able to stay at home safely.
Personally, what I appreciate most about the FTDD is that it takes federal dollars and sees they get used wisely. That’s something I think most of us agree doesn’t happen often enough: Federal dollars being used wisely.
Four to five million dollars of the district’s $6.8 million budget is designated for programs for the aging. Most of those dollars come from the federal government through the Tennessee Commission on Aging. The state uses the districts to administer programs closer to where the dollars will actually be used. Reid and her staff know the communities they serve. They know because their board is made up of the city, town and county mayors from those communities. So rather than have faceless bureaucrats from Washington determining how dollars should be allocated, people who know and care about their neighbors are doing the job.
The region is fortunate to have Reid and her team working on our behalf, but Reid says it’s they who are the lucky ones. “How fortunate are we,” she says, “that we work somewhere where everything we do is good.”