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Move to Kingsport effort becomes official council with paid director

Sharon Caskey Hayes • Sep 8, 2007 at 12:00 AM

From left, Bill Anderson, Carol Kawa, and Ken Marsh, members of the new Move to Kingsport Council, stand downtown with Lee Fish, council director. The council encourages folks to move to the city as a way to boost economic development and ensure that local industry has the skilled work force it needs to be successful into the future. Erica Yoon photo.


Are you new to Kingsport?

If the answer is yes, you’re among a growing group of newcomers to a city that’s holding its arms wide open.

The Kingsport Board of Mayor & Aldermen and the Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce have joined together to establish the new Move to Kingsport Council, a program with a full-time paid director under the chamber’s umbrella. It’s an effort to encourage folks to move to the city as a way to boost economic development and ensure that local industry has the skilled work force it needs to be successful into the future.

“We all want to get the next Saturn plant or the next steel mill or computer plant. But the real key to economic development is simply people,” said Ken Marsh, a city alderman who serves on the Move to Kingsport Council.

The former Move to Kingsport Task Force became an official program of the chamber in July with the hiring of Lee Fish as director. A native of Hopkinsville, Ky., Fish previously served as the Homeland Security and First Response specialist for Airgas Mid America in Kingsport.

In her new job, Fish coordinates advertising to reach potential newcomers to Kingsport. She also practices response marketing by personally calling all the folks who request packets about the city. That personal touch can make all the difference.

“We are attempting to do something here in Kingsport that’s not ever been done that we know of. We focus on making people feel like they are a human being and not a number in society,” Fish said.

The job means Fish is on the phone — a lot. In July, the chamber took 49 requests for packet information about the city. For the year through July, the chamber took 369 requests.

That compares to a total of 305 requests for all of 2006, Fish said.

“So this year it will be double if not more than double what we did last year,” she said.

In contrast, the chamber had 100 such inquiries in 2002.

By targeting only those who show an interest in the city, Marsh said, Move to Kingsport is marketing to “99.99 percent” of the people.

“And if you can bring those people here, you’ve done economic development,” Marsh said.

“You want people who are well educated, who have resources, and who will contribute something to your community. If you can find people who fit those three criteria, the economic development side of your community is going to be well served,” he said.

Move to Kingsport Council Chairman Bill Anderson said studies show that a family moving into a community creates one to two jobs in that community. Those newcomers may be professionals moving here to work, families moving here to raise their children, or older adults moving here to spend the rest of their lives.

Kingsport Chamber Chief Executive Officer Miles Burdine said military retirees are especially attractive and will become more of a focus in the future. He said many retiring military personnel are still in their 40s and ready to start another career.

But military or not, newcomers are all welcome in Kingsport. Burdine said that working to attract new residents to the city just makes sense.

“They move here, take a job here, move their family here, buy a house here, buy groceries here, visit restaurants here. It all comes together and creates more jobs and builds the tax base,” Burdine said. “It’s become a tremendous work force development, economic development strategy all in one.”

Plus, he said, many newcomers become involved in the community by volunteering in civic projects and organizations.

Newcomers can also fill gaps in the local work force. And companies trying to recruit people can contact the chamber for help. Burdine said the chamber gives a presentation for local businesses to prospective employees about living and working in Kingsport. And to date, 100 percent of the people who’ve seen the presentation have committed to accept a job and move to Kingsport, he said.

“They know then what we know — which is Kingsport is a great place to live,” Burdine said.

He said he’s talked with chamber executives around the country and found that communities everywhere face the same issue.

“Across the nation, we are all wrestling with, how are we going to replace our workers? And what we’re doing in Kingsport — this strategy is beginning to get noticed, and it’s beginning to get modeled by other communities,” Burdine said.

How it began

In the fall of 2005, the Kingsport Chamber held a retreat and identified recruitment of people as one of its main goals for the following year.

At about that same time, the local Kiwanis Club was working to identify industry clusters and opportunities that could be available for economic development.

“In our investigation, we more or less found that recruitment of people was one of the focuses,” said Anderson, a Kiwanis Club member who worked on the project.

On behalf of the Kiwanis Club, Anderson made a presentation on the issue at a meeting of NETWORKS — Sullivan Partnership. Attending the meeting was Elaine Bodenweiser with the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce.

Bodenweiser and Anderson joined together on the issue, and in January 2006, a task force was formed to officially address the opportunities associated with attracting more people to the city. The task force began meeting in the spring of 2006.

“The first thing we looked at was attracting people who might be interested in moving here just for the amenities of the area,” Anderson said.

John Campbell, now Kingsport city manager who was serving as CEO of NETWORKS — Sullivan Partnership at the time, had conducted interviews with existing industry and discovered a shortage of skilled labor in the area.

As a result of those interviews, the Move to Kingsport Task Force broadened its focus to try and recruit people with the skills needed to meet the demands of business and industry, Anderson said.

One of the first items on the task force agenda was creating a Web site.

“We fairly quickly identified the need for a Web site, since we recognized that most people looking for areas to relocate use the Internet as a resource. And so one of our first accomplishments was to develop the Move to Kingsport Web site,” Anderson said.

The Web site went online in June 2006, and almost immediately, the chamber of commerce began seeing an increase in inquiries for newcomer packets on moving to Kingsport.

The momentum continued in the fall of 2006 when a feature article and photographs about Kingsport appeared in the US Airways magazine, an in-plane publication on all the airline’s aircraft.

At the same time, the state of Tennessee launched a new program called Retire Tennessee, and Kingsport and Sullivan County joined in the effort to attract those who may be retiring and looking to relocate.

Efforts continued earlier this year when Kingsport and Sullivan County joined with the state of Tennessee to participate in two real estate shows in Chicago and Detroit. Anderson said those shows generated hundreds of new inquiries for Sullivan County and the Kingsport and Bristol chambers of commerce.

Meanwhile, the number of inquiries continued to rise as more people clicked on the Move to Kingsport Web site.

And people weren’t just looking. Between July 2006 and June 2007, 1,579 new households moved to Kingsport from 35 states, including 164 families from Virginia, 95 families from Florida, and 33 families from North Carolina.

“As the number of inquiries continued to increase, we saw the need to expand the program and hire a full-time director,” Anderson said.

In a collaborative effort, the city’s BMA joined with the chamber to fund an official Move to Kingsport Council and director position. Marsh said the BMA agreed to provide dollar for dollar the money that the chamber raises for the program, up to $45,000, for a total of $90,000. “For $90,000, the potential here is tremendous,” Marsh said. “This is the most cost effective economic development you can have.”

As the new Move to Kingsport director, Fish said she can relate to newcomers to the Model City. She herself first moved here 17 years ago.

“Nobody can talk transplant better than me,” she said. “This is home and I won’t go back again — ever.”

For more information, visit MovetoKingsport.com.

A newcomer’s club has also been organized to help newcomers become part of the community. For more information, visit www.kingsportnewcomersclub.com.

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