You might be thinking we’ve been down this road before. And, yes, there have been efforts in the past to get the cities and counties in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia to work more closely together, with varying degrees of success.
But this time it’s different. The initiative has originated in the business community, it has leaders from the region’s largest employers behind it and it’s rapidly gaining momentum.
Eastman Chairman and CEO Mark Costa has stated publicly that the company supports a regional approach and the only way the region will survive is by working together. Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine echoes this sentiment.
“I agree with (Costa) when he says Eastman will not support efforts which are parochial. Ballad Health will be doing the same. We will contribute our energy and resources to efforts that are regional.”
What is driving this intense push for regionalism? The short answer is competition and demographics.
Jerry Caldwell, Bristol Motor Speedway’s executive vice president and general manager, said by not working together “our region is losing out on growth opportunities.”
“This may be hard for some to hear, but if you sit in meetings in Nashville or other metropolitan areas in the state of Tennessee, when a conversation moves towards East Tennessee or Northeast Tennessee, we are not identified individually,” Caldwell said. “We must work on better branding identification and recognition for ourselves.”
Kingsport Mayor John Clark said Northeast Tennessee is competing with large cities in Tennessee as well as all other Southern states for residents, jobs and investors.
“Joining forces and working together is the best way forward to compete and achieve manageable growth,” he said.
WHERE DID ALL THE YOUNG FOLKS GO?
And then there’s the serious issue of population decline. There are counties in the region that are projecting a nearly doubledigit decline in population, particularly of young people, over the next five to seven years, Levine said.
“If our population continues to be stagnant, and our kids keep leaving to find opportunity elsewhere, we cannot survive economically,” he said.
“The facts right now regarding our population growth and state of the economy in our region are sobering,” Caldwell said. “We have real challenges and problems that we must acknowledge. We cannot continue to operate the same way and expect a different outcome.”
Lottie Ryans, First Tennessee Development District director of Workforce and Literacy Initiatives, said decreased population can mean lower revenues for city and county services, and decreased enrollment for schools means less funding.
“An intentional focus on growing the region benefits everyone,” she said.
The Times News contacted more than 20 regional business and government leaders to get their input on the issue of regionalism. We asked them five questions, and over the next five days we will share their answers with you.
First, we wanted to find out just what business and community leaders mean when they talk about regionalism.
WHAT IS REGIONALISM?
Broadly defined, they said regionalism is when separate communities in a geographic area work together for the common good — particularly in the areas of economic development and tourism.
“Regionalism, to me, means our cities and counties working together to promote the area by using all available resources,” said former Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips.
Jerry Petzoldt, founder and CEO of the TCI Group, said it is “a unified voice and a positive perspective to place the region first.”
Caldwell likened regionalism to a family.
“I have four children, six members of our family. While I want all members to have their own identity and embrace who they are, I also want them to focus on the greater good of the whole family. We are stronger together. The same is true with our region.”
WHAT ISN’T IT?
The people we talked to also wanted to stress what regionalism isn’t.
Ballad’s Levine said, “Each of our communities has its own identity and pride, and that is a strength of ours. So it is important to say what regionalism is not — it is not a substitute for the political and cultural leadership of each of our communities.”
As Bristol Chamber of Commerce President Beth Rhinehart puts it, “What it doesn’t mean is working on behalf of a greater regional approach to an individual community’s own detriment.”
What does regionalism mean to you?
Jon Smith (Tri-Cities Airport Authority, ETSU): “Simply stated, regionalism is common sense. It is a recognition that economic activity is not confined to a single city, county or even a state.”
Jerry Caldwell (BMS executive vice president and general manager): “Regionalism means focusing on the greater good of a large area. While each city/town/county should be proud of who they are, we must remember that we are stronger together.”
Keith Wilson, Ballad Health board of directors: “Regionalism is a tactical approach to problem solving. It’s not an end unto itself. A regional approach should be used when it is the most effective way to problem solve.”
Jerry Petzoldt, founder and CEO of the TCI Group: “It means developing a common recognizable brand and reputation to attract new business and population growth.”
Beth Rhinehart, Bristol Chamber of Commerce: “More importantly, what is doesn’t mean is working on behalf of a greater regional approach to an individual community’s own detriment.”
Jenny Brock, Johnson City vice mayor: “Some may think regionalism is a threat to a city or county’s unique identity. I see just the opposite. Each location has a unique value proposition that adds to the culture of the region.”