Want the region to be more prosperous? Make it happen.


By Scott Robertson

If you’d like insight into how a Hall of Fame caliber business leader thinks, look to the comments of Ballad Health Chairman, President and CEO Alan Levine, the 2018 Junior Achievement Hall of Fame laureate, regarding value. Levine, featured in the JA Special Section in this month’s issue of The Business Journal of Tri-Cities, TN/VA, says Junior Achievement taught him a key lesson: everything that presents an opportunity to generate value also presents an opportunity to create prosperity. The key is realizing what you can do or make in which the market will see enough value to compensate you profitably.

Today, the political and business leaders of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia are realizing the potential increased profitability of creating a region-wide value proposition. The unified support for Aerospace Park represents one example of that. Another example is the newly-discovered synergy of the Chambers of Commerce representing Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport.

Beginning in 2018, the chairs of each Chamber (Jerry Caldwell, Andy Dietrich and Bob Feathers) sit on the boards of the other two. While each organization remains firm in its resolve to promote the business interests of its own city, a newfound realization of common purpose has emerged. It is our profound hope that realization will last beyond the one-year term those three men are concurrently enjoying.

To be sure, the concept of regionalism has raised hackles in the past, particularly among leaders who see themselves as doing well under a more splintered framework. As one local official who did not wish to be quoted by name told me earlier this week, “It depends on what ‘regionalism’ means. Everybody understands we can do more together than we can separately, but whose ox will end up getting gored in the process?”

Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable appeared to say as much in a Kingsport Times News piece in April. The headline read, “Venable: Regionalism alive and well but should not trump local ‘sovereignty.’”

The fact is, a regional approach to economic and community development need not be a threat to any who have prospered in the past. A well-planned, properly executed regional strategy should leverage the existing strengths of each community and company, threatening none.

It appears, at least on the surface, that the existing economic development organizations in the region may be more willing to engage in regional efforts than in the past. NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership, the Sullivan County-based economic development group that handles Sullivan and part of Hawkins counties, last week unveiled a new video touting the entire region, including Washington County and Johnson City. And representatives of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership (NeTREP), which handles economic development efforts for Carter, Unicoi and Washington counties, have repeatedly expressed an interest in working together with NETWORKS.

In fact, if there’s any room for improvement to NETWORKS’ superb video effort, it’s that inviting NeTREP and the Greene County Partnership to cooperate in the production (and cost-sharing) might have created an even stronger regional product. Preaching and practicing.

The Business Journal is the sister publication of Johnson City News & Neighbor. Its coverage map stretches from Greeneville, Tenn., in the west to Marion, Va., in the east. Every community in between has something to offer. Every business in between creates some value.

Taken as a whole, this region offers up outdoor recreation opportunities, industrial properties, commercial real estate and prime residential space. Why should we not encourage our business and government leaders to create a single identity to market the best of all those communities?

If every community that has spent time and money trying to lure business away from any other community in the region were to put those resources instead toward improving its own existing strengths and addressing its own weaknesses, the entire region would stand to benefit.

More people are realizing this. Leaders who have a vision of what a unified region can accomplish are speaking out. From Levine and ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland working to spread the word about the links between health, education and prosperity to Eastman CEO Mark Costa and Executive Vice President David Golden touting innovation and common purpose. From Lottie Ryans, director of Workforce and Literacy Initiatives at the First Tennessee Development District;  Scott Niswonger, founder of the Niswonger Foundation and Travis Staton, CEO of the United Way of Southwest Virginia working to create pathways for today’s students to become tomorrow’s dynamic workforce to John Speropulos, president of Mitch Cox Realtor, Inc., and our own publisher, Bill Derby, promoting the idea of reuniting the Kingsport and Johnson City MSAs.

These leaders all realize the importance of something else Levine says in his Junior Achievement bio, “Make it happen. Learn as much as you can, take that knowledge, and don’t look to make excuses for why you can’t get ahead.”

Make it happen.


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