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If the regionalism effort is going to succeed, who should take the lead?

• Aug 1, 2018 at 9:40 AM

So, who’s going to be in charge?

Regionalism currently comes down to “everyone is in charge; therefore, no one is in charge,” as former Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips describes it.

This is his recommendation: “Industry leadership is the only way we will ever be successful.

“Eastman, Ballad Health and ETSU (the big three) — along with our other businesses and industries that are so important to our success — will have to take the lead in making this happen.”

Several business leaders have “organically” begun the effort, according to Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine.

“I like it that way, I know it is intended to be an inclusive effort, and hopefully it will grow organically,” he said.

Support from elected leaders

Levine hopes the area’s political leaders will take an active support role.

“So far, the feedback has been good. We as business leaders need to respect the obligations our political leaders have, but we also hope they will be willing to take some political risk to support creating a powerful regionally competitive economic growth engine.”

Johnson City Vice Mayor Jenny Brock suggests a “Tiger Team” of influential business and community leaders be formed to provide “strategic guidance” and that other groups will drive specific initiatives.

“For example, the Outdoor Taskforce originating over a year ago in Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties is expanding to include Greene, Sullivan and Johnson County. The exceptional outdoor assets we have is ‘low hanging fruit’ we can leverage to promote regional tourism.”

Brock said these assets exist throughout the region and can be branded to reflect the region’s exceptional outdoor offerings.

“A clear and decisive strategic outdoor recreational plan will provide a roadmap to success,” she said.

The Airport Authority as a model

Because most local economic development entities are, for the most part, not designed to operate regionally, “a new, regionally focused, jointly owned or operated entity is a logical lead organization,” said Jon Smith, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at East Tennessee State University.

Smith is also chairman of the Tri-Cities Airport Authority and suggests that the new organization might be similar to the authority, “the most successful and only truly regional organization in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.”

To be successful, Smith said, any regional economic development organization “should be a public-private partnership with long-term commitments for support coming from local businesses and government entities.”

And the most essential requirement, he said, is the enthusiastic support of all stakeholders.

The success of a regionalism endeavor hinges on a strong group of leaders who must be inclusive while sharing information updates on the progress within their own networks, said Bristol Chamber of Commerce President Beth Rhinehart.

“Chambers are good homes for the conversation in that they represent such a large percentage of businesses, and they are also closely connected and engaged with the locally elected and employed community leaders,” she said.

Rhinehart said Chambers of Commerce are accustomed to navigating challenging conversations and that Bristol’s Chamber is a good example of how to work across jurisdictional lines.

“I will not say that this is always easy, but communication has been the most critical component to ensuring success and avoiding conflict,” she said.

More questions

But just asking the question of who should lead the effort isn’t enough, according to Clay Walker, CEO of NETWORKS — Sullivan Partnership. He said three things first need to be defined: What is the region? What is the objective? And what are the strategies and action items?

“Rather than identify one leader of all regional missions, the most qualified partner within each goal should assume the leadership position,” Walker suggested.

“I would think once a vision and game plan are established, the most experienced people or group with best track record of success would be the logical leader,” he said. “The most successful regional economic development programs of work generally have multiple leaders, which are the most qualified people and entities steering their respective areas of expertise.”

And Bristol, Tenn., Mayor Margaret Feierabend said leadership of the initiative must be a combined effort.

“Some in our region have always seen themselves on the top, and that is very off-putting and holds back efforts,” she said.

Who should take the lead and why?

Alan Levine, Ballad Health CEO: “I think several business leaders have organically begun this effort. ... I really hope our political leaders will take an active support role.”

Jerry Caldwell, Bristol Motor Speedway executive vice president and general manager: “There will certainly be leaders that take a more prominent role, but this is a mind shift for all of us. This is something that we can all focus on.”

Jon Smith: “Given that existing economic development entities are, for the most part, not designed to operate at the regional level, it seems that a new, regionally focused, jointly owned or operated entity is a logical lead organization.”

Beth Rhinehart: “Chambers (of commerce) are good homes for the conversation, in that they represent such a large percentage of businesses and they are also closely connected and engaged with the locally elected and employed community leaders.”

Jenny Brock: “I think a small but influential group of business and community leaders should serve on a ‘Tiger Team’ to provide strategic guidance.

Dennis Phillips: “Industry leadership is the only way we will ever be successful. Eastman, Ballad Health and ETSU (the big three), along with other businesses and industries that are so important to our success will have to take the lead in making this happen.”

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