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Johnson City Med Tech consultants eye fresh economic development strategy

Jeff Keeling • Jul 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM

Status quo not adequate if dynamic economy is sought, leaders advised.

A group of local leaders strategizing about future economic development tasked a consultant Friday with “upsetting the apple cart” of the current economic development organization, while the consultant told leaders that to succeed they will have to adequately fund any new or changed efforts.

The “apple cart” comment came from a local citizen surveyed by Market Street Services about the area’s economic development strategy, and was one of several Mac Holladay shared with Med Tech Task Force members.

Holladay, whose company completed a study on the local Med Tech economy early this year, told those gathered as part of a follow-up that while “we’re jumping on a moving train” as far as local potential, leaders had best be ready to act.

“I’ve never seen a more competitive time where communities are working on hard, tough issues, be that education and work force, or downtown, or whatever it may be,” Holladay said.

The city of Johnson City, East Tennessee State University and Mountain States Health Alliance are paying Market Street $56,000 to study the local economy’s current status and potential, and offer suggestions for improvement.

One thing coming through loud and clear Friday was that the economic development status quo is inadequate if the area wants to have a truly dynamic economy. Holladay’s on-screen sampling of comments from local residents suggested a widespread feeling that current efforts are falling short.

“We’re not being critical of anybody or anything, we’re trying to tell you what we saw, and at the same time compare that with the best that there is in this country.”

Holladay and fellow consultant Irene Sacks outlined a four-pronged comprehensive economic development strategy before a brief discussion of the “how,” which could involve tough local decisions about the future role of local “economic engines” such as the Economic Development Board, Chamber of Commerce and Johnson City Development Authority.

Johnson City Commissioner Steve Darden said he and fellow task force members are determined to act, but that political realities make a consultant’s recommendations very important.

“When we get to this point, I think that’s time for you to tell us with unvarnished truth what you think,” Darden said. “Our thinking can’t help but be shaped by personalities, friendships, whatever. I really want the straight dope from you all on this.

“I think for us to really do what we need to do for the future well-being of our area, it’s going to take some expertise ... and I think that’s why we hired you.”

Holladay asked those gathered whether any of the area’s several economic development organizations has the staff capacity and volunteer leadership to lead the way in a new economic development strategy. Whether the cause was a lack of adequate resources or something else, those willing to answer were unequivocal.

“My simple answer ... is no, with no equivocation of any kind,” said Rick Gilbert of Ear Technology, a local audiology products company. Gilbert was following up on a comment from Crown Laboratories CEO Jeff Bedard, who questioned whether a reshuffling of duties and authority among current organizations would continue to leave the area’s potential unfulfilled.

“If we’re here to talk about the future,” Bedard said, “that’s question 3” (What is the best organizational framework for successful implementation and for leading the new and enhanced economic development efforts in the future?)

Holladay warned, however, that a “changing of the guard” is not necessarily the answer, and certainly won’t solve all the area’s economic development challenges.

“It is going to be about greater resources ... both fiscal and human,” he said.

In fact, Holladay became rather passionate about what he sees as the area’s need to provide adequate resources to its economic development effort.

“This is about professional staff backing this up,” he said. “This is about people who get up every morning with nothing other in mind than their particular piece of this puzzle, whether that’s downtown or it’s tourism or it’s making sure that those workers are doing what they need to do.”

Darden said the stakes are high for Johnson City and Washington County.

“The perception’s been that we’ve led the region, but we can’t rest on that.”

Holladay will return for a meeting in September, and may present a final report, including specific recommendations for economic development organizational structure, at the city’s Oct. 23 Economic Summit.

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