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Johnson City leaders say negative aspects of Med Tech report overemphasized

COREY SHOUN • Feb 11, 2007 at 8:09 AM

JOHNSON CITY - The leaders who commissioned Market Street Services' $90,000 study on the area's Med Tech economy are generally pleased with its recommendations, but say egos will have to be checked at the door for the area to enjoy maximum economic growth.

To varying degrees, they also take issue with the study's somewhat negative portrayal of how Johnson City's "Med Tech Corridor" has developed to date, and with the coverage of the report.

East Tennessee State University Paul Stanton said he is "extremely optimistic" that coming years can see the Johnson City area reap even more benefits from its health care and technology-related strengths than it already has.

"Good things are happening, and even better things can occur, but the next steps are going to require even more cooperation, partnering and collaboration," Stanton said.

Stanton, who remembers walking the current 130-acre Med Tech Park property in 1992 when it was still pasture land, said the Market Street report, and subsequent coverage, did overplay the claim that the Med Tech Corridor concept had failed.

"When they say the time for the Med Tech Corridor has passed, I can't say anybody was trying to realize it in that sense, because since 1993, we've never envisioned anything beyond the three anchors," Stanton said. The "anchors" he referred to are the 130-acre Med Tech Park at the north end of State of Franklin Road, the planned "middle anchor" at the site of the former National Guard Armory and the "south anchor" across from ETSU at Millennium Park.

Likewise, Johnson City Mayor Steve Darden maintained the labors of the past decade have produced a "success story" that has the city poised for more good fortune as far as the three anchors are concerned.

He said the true benefit of the study is not in its often bleak assessment of the city's Med Tech history, but rather in its assessment of the city's potential.

"I hope that all concerned will keep a historical perspective when they sit down and read the report for themselves," Darden said. "It's much more about the future than it is the past."

Although he lamented the "eagerness" with which the media jumped to negative conclusions, Darden acknowledged that a "check-up" for the city's economy was in order and some long-held tenets concerning Med Tech development will require examination and, likely, new direction.

"This report contemplates a good deal of change and people have varying degrees of receptivity to change," Darden said. "The bottom line is that it's unlikely the recommendations in this report will happen overnight, but we simply can't let it become something that gathers dust on someone's shelf, either."

Mountain States Health Alliance President Dennis Vonderfecht agreed that the negative had been overemphasized, and said labeling the corridor concept a failure "misses the point of what all has occurred that's very positive over the past 10-12 years with regard to Med Tech."

His preference, Vonderfecht said, is to "celebrate those accomplishments, which have been many, recognize where we have opportunities for improvement, study those, and develop plans to carry us forward from here."

Vonderfecht and Stanton agreed on the need, indicated in the report, to increase resources dedicated specifically to advancing the area's Med Tech economy.

Stanton said he believed a good starting point would be finding one employee, plus an administrative assistant, to focus solely on whatever priorities leaders develop for Med Tech's future. Such a relatively small investment, he said, could pay for itself many times over.

"I think it's truly phenomenal when somewhat disparate groups have worked on their own, but as friends, and contributed to all that has been done over the last 15 years, but the potential for the next tier of development is huge," Stanton said.

To avoid duplication of effort among the economic development agencies that will contribute to Med Tech growth, Vonderfecht said, a well-qualified person is crucial for any new position.

"There definitely needs to be someone that understands the knowledge-based industry, and what you need to be able to do to recruit those businesses into our community," he said.

Both Vonderfecht and Stanton said the Market Street report's lumping of finance and insurance in with the Med Tech economy were a good insight.

"Those things ought to be a natural at this time for additional corridor development," Stanton said. Vonderfecht noted that Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Cariten both have local offices and provide a base for growth in that area.

The bottom line for the leaders who spoke, though, was the need to pull what has been a fragmented approach to Med Tech development together under a common aegis.

"I would hope that everyone could come to the table with an objective view of this and do what's in the best interest of the future of the Johnson City area," Vonderfecht said.

Stanton concurred, and said he sees a chance for existing economic development groups and a new person with a Med Tech focus being supportive of each other, not exclusive.

"I think the potential is just tremendous if people can pull together and try not to be territorial at all," Stanton said.

For his part, Darden said he preferred not to comment "in-depth" on the details of the plan until after Tuesday's planned public unveiling of the study.

"I strongly want to encourage everyone who is interested in Johnson City's economic future to try to attend this explanatory session," he said.

The Med Tech Task Force will present the plan at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Centre at Millennium Park's ballroom.

Jeff Keeling contributed to this story.

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