That’s the biggest benefit of regionalism, according to Clay Walker, CEO of NETWORKS — Sullivan Partnership. But he adds this condition, “When done properly.”
Most drawbacks to regionalism, Walker said, are connected to how a regional initiative is executed.
“For example, the effort must be fair and inclusive, involving the proper people. It must also honor each of the partner communities’ own identity and branding efforts and find a common message that doesn’t compete with any of those brands.”
You’ve got to be able to compete
When business and community leaders talk about the benefits of regionalism, they mention being able to compete with other regions of the country for business and industry, they cite more efficient use of tax dollars and better opportunities to solve problems.
“Regionalism encourages cooperation and partnerships, while making possible feats that ordinarily might not be attainable and creates opportunities that may not otherwise be available,” said Steve Smith, president and CEO of Food City. “There are very few, if any, drawbacks to regionalism, when implemented properly.”
Ken Maness points out that the region has undertaken significant joint projects in the past, most notably the creation of Tri-Cities Airport, and more recently, banding together to support the creation of Ballad Health.
“Regionalism in our area has been around for a long time. We will benefit as it strengthens,” said Maness, a former Kingsport alderman who now serves on the Tri-Cities Airport Authority. “The path to regionalism is easier when a strong common bond and clear regional identity exists. In the Tri Cities, we have a bond based on proximity to each other, creating economic interdependence, while facing challenges as remote outposts to our state governments.”
Jerry Caldwell, Bristol Motor Speedway executive vice president and general manager, said his organization sees firsthand the “amazing things” that can be accomplished when the region pulls together.
“We at Bristol Motor Speedway are very fortunate to be an international destination and have very strong support from everyone in this region. We are not able to put on the events that we host without that support of everyone in the region,” he said.
On the national stage
Being nationally recognized as one large community “much like the Research Triangle in North Carolina or Silicon Valley in California” is another big benefit of regionalism, according to Miles Burdine and Bob Feathers of the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce. Burdine is the chamber’s president and Feathers is chamber board chair. They responded together to the newspaper’s questions.
“It puts our regional community on the map so everyone will know where we are and, in many ways, who and what we are,” they said.
Regionalism is also the acceptance of a hard truth, according to Jon Smith, Tri-Cities Airport Authority chairman and East Tennessee State University director of the Bureau of Business & Economics Research.
“When it comes to attracting industry, smaller urban centers are at a significant disadvantage when competing against larger cities,” he said.
For cities and counties in smaller regions to compete with larger communities, they have to work together, Smith said.
“It is the surest way of achieving regionwide economic growth that will increase the prosperity of the region’s residents and achieve economic development that will enhance our quality of life while preserving the amenities and culture that make the region unique.”
The drawback to regionalism most voiced addressed a community’s fear of losing its unique identity, its “sense of place, sense of community,” said Margaret Feierabend, Bristol, Tenn., mayor.
Bristol Chamber of Commerce President Beth Rhinehart said, “There is an innate fear for some that regionalism means our own community’s identity and interests will no longer matter.”
Some people worry that regionalism means giving up local political control or “letting another community win,” said Alan Levine, CEO of Ballad Health.
“It does not. What it does mean is that our regional industrial and commercial growth is critical for us to have strong local political leadership,” he said.
“In many respects, our political leaders struggle with regionalism because they are elected to serve the needs of county and city taxpayers, and that is totally reasonable. That’s why the business community, which does not have those political boundaries, has to lead this effort.”
And Johnson City Vice Mayor Jenny Brock said regionalism is not a threat to a city’s 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. These unique features add energy and color to any regional experience,” she said.
Miles Burdine/Bob Feathers, Kingsport Chamber of Commerce: “The benefits of regionalism include being recognized nationally as one large community. It puts our regional community on the map so everyone will know where we are and, in many ways, who and what we are.”
Lottie Ryans, First Tennessee Development District : “We are stronger with greater ideas for growth or solving problems when we work across the region. We showcase a greater depth and breadth of opportunity in all aspects of life.”
John Clark, Kingsport mayor: “The benefits of regionalism allow for all interested partners to work together for a common cause. … The drawbacks of regionalism include the possibility for each individual city or county to lose their respective independence and/or identity.”
Jenny Brock, Johnson City vice mayor: “The outside world does not see city or county boundary lines when they are making a decision to locate in our area. They look for an area with offerings they need or want.”
Beth Rhinehart, Bristol Chamber of Commerce president: “The greatest benefit is improved economic vitality of the entire region, over time. When our region is vibrant, so are the individual communities within that region.”
Steve Smith, Food City president and CEO: “Regionalism encourages cooperation and partnerships while making possible feats that ordinarily might not be possible to affect individually.”