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Report: Leadership needed to grow Johnson City's Med Tech base

COREY SHOUN • Feb 5, 2007 at 11:27 AM

JOHNSON CITY - Imagine a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces all turned right side up, edge pieces separate from the others, and a few clusters of similar pieces, and you may have a good analogy for the current organizational level of the Johnson City area's Med Tech economy.

Market Street Services Inc., an Atlanta-based agency, has completed a study of the Med Tech Corridor, including recommendations for the future.

Achieving the Market Street Report's first objective - to "strengthen and grow Johnson City's Med Tech economy" - will require a coherently led effort that, if successful, may turn the proverbial thousand pieces of cardboard into one pretty picture.

Neglect the opportunity, the report suggests, and the potential for a dynamic economic engine that puts Johnson City on the national Med Tech map could go the way of the initial "corridor" vision - dissipated in a sea of haphazardly planned retail development.

As the report states in its conclusion, "Economic development works most effectively in communities with a unified, comprehensive, public/private program."

The report also notes repeatedly that the Johnson City area does not presently have a unified and comprehensive program to grow, support and market its Med Tech base.

With the understanding that Johnson City needs to create a framework like the one mentioned above, the report outlines in Objective 1 four main Med Tech employment sectors (the what), and advocates a three-pronged approach (the how) to developing these.

The report notes that targeted economic development (such as Med Tech) is common because related business sectors "share labor pools, resources and other characteristics that play to their respective strengths."

The first "target business sector" is, unsurprisingly, health care services, which the report calls "the foundation of the Johnson City/Washington County economy, with over 9,000 jobs."

Mountain States Health Alliance, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Quillen College of Medicine - and the many physician practices directly or indirectly associated with them - are a juggernaut that creates potential for growth in "niche areas" such as telemedicine services, long-term care facilities and elective medical procedures.

The second sector, medical products, is small, the report says, but ripe for growth. With a handful of specialized product developers and manufacturers in addition to traditional medical and dental supply firms, this sector could be on the cusp of growth and diversification. Its current employment, according to the report, is 468 workers in 14 companies.

The third sector fuels growth and production in the others. Finance and insurance could grow in the Johnson City area if the strong local finance sector aids in pursuing a greater share of health insurance industry jobs here.

The fourth sector puts a little more "tech" in Med Tech. Information and health technology services are becoming a must for even small health care practices, which will create natural growth for "IT" firms. In addition, the report notes that "digitizing services" (transferring paper records to computer) and other advances that create efficiencies and cost savings in health care should create more opportunities for technology providers.

If the sectors mentioned above are the jigsaw pieces, the "three-pronged" approach to developing them is the mind, eyes and hands that put the pieces together. Those prongs are existing business retention and expansion, targeted recruitment and small business development.

In the report's judgment, strong, focused efforts to retain and expand existing Med Tech businesses, and aggressive recruitment of new ones, is almost entirely lacking. The report suggests that the local Economic Development Board cannot presently meet these needs and says that "developing a comprehensive business retention and expansion program should be a top priority."

Whether Johnson City and Washington County find more resources for the EDB and base a business retention and expansion (BRE) program there, or take another route, the report says identifying and addressing existing businesses' needs, even to the point of visiting them regularly, will help keep businesses here and make the area "more attractive to new companies considering a relocation.."

In another knock on the EDB, the report noted that the board is seen as primarily interested in industrial recruitment, that "a broader approach to recruitment would benefit Johnson City" and that "the importance and potential of health care and technology in Johnson City's economy needs greater recognition."

To achieve the end of developing Med Tech capacity, the report says, the area needs a full-time employee to oversee business retention and expansion. Additionally, the disparate economic development agencies - from EDB to the Tri-Cities Economic Development Alliance - must work together to bump up the recruitment of Med Tech companies.

The report places some urgency on additional resources, saying "greater capacity is needed for these expanded economic development efforts."

Whether local leaders decide to place a BRE program within the EDB or form an entirely new entity to focus on the Med Tech economy, a proposed timetable in the implementation section puts a BRE program at the top of the list, suggesting that eight months should be sufficient set-up time.

In terms of recruitment, the timetable gives 10 to 12 months to "ramp up" a broadened recruitment focus that targets Med Tech businesses.

Jeff Keeling contributed to this report.

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