Unto Caesar


By Scott Robertson

There are certain things in life we take on faith – things we believe will always be a certain way because they’ve always been that way. Yet more and more, those things are changing, and our faith in institutions is being shaken.

For me it started on 9/11. I had taken it for granted that America was the lone superpower in the world, and that if someone were foolhardy enough to attack us, he would pay dearly and quickly. Bin Laden lived for years while we went from surplus to massive debt funding a government-run airport security system and waging war on Iraq. My faith in our superiority on the world stage was shaken.

The last presidential election, conducted under the Obama administration, was the target of a Russian intelligence campaign. That was the kind of thing we used to do to little banana republics in Central America, and it was done to us. Just so, we are apparently doing little to stand up to Moscow now. Under two different presidents, my faith in the White House’s ability to deal with the Russian threat has been shaken.

Here in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, some folks are going through a smaller scale crisis of faith. People who expected Eastman and Wellmont to be “Kingsport’s things” and Mountain States to be “Johnson City’s thing” are learning that just because it used to be that way, doesn’t mean it always will be.

Eastman’s headquarters is located in Kingsport because a century ago, George Eastman and Perley Wilcox found in that location a ready supply of wood and a partially-built plant left behind when the American Wood Reduction company went bust. That wood provided chemicals for methanol and acetates Eastman Kodak needed at the time for its film business.

Now, how important is Northeast Tennessee wood, or the production of film for the consumer camera market, to Eastman today?

It should come then as no surprise that while Eastman’s CEO is not taking support from Kingsport, he is moving toward support of a broader model for developing the workforce and meeting infrastructure needs.

While Mark Costa has expressed support for regional economic development at the Annual Eastman Leaders Breakfast in past years, his comments this year were more direct, pointed and action-oriented than ever before. “That is the only thing we at Eastman are going to support, just to be exceptionally clear – a regional approach where we all work together as one team, which I absolutely know we can do, to create more growth and investment.”

“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again,” Costa said, “the only way this region is going to survive is if it comes together as a region. If each city is out there trying to compete against each other, you’ll get some retail shops to move from one city to the next within the area and it’s an utter waste of time. We need more jobs in the region. We all will win in the end.”

A similar shift in thinking is going on in health care. Those who saw the creation of Ballad Health as the Johnson City-based system taking over the Kingsport-based system missed the point. Just because those systems used to be that way doesn’t mean they will continue to be. Ballad will be regional. The benefits and the pain associated with that merger will be felt across the region, including here in Washington County.

Those who cry out against the feeling of somehow losing the tight bond between a city and a company (or against investing local dollars in regional projects like Aerospace Park) may believe they rage against changes they fear happening in the near future. In truth, they are railing against the way things already are.

We face real challenges today from Diabetes to opioids to the shortcomings of education. We should be fighting those battles, not flailing without effect against the sands of the hourglass.

Faith is the key to the next world. Understanding, admitting, and dealing with the changes that have already happened here are the keys to living in this one.


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