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Kingsport goes from bust to boom

Sharon Caskey Hayes • Nov 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM

Job layoffs.

Factory closings.

Mass exodus.

Vacant houses.

Depressed market.

Words that could describe Kingsport not so long ago.

But not anymore.

During the next few days, the Kingsport Times-News will look back on life in the city just a few years ago, and what happened to turn the tide.

Bad News

In October 1999, Eastman Chemical Co. called an impromptu press conference at the MeadowView Conference Resort and Convention Center. The company’s chairman and chief executive officer, Earnie Deavenport, walked to the podium and faced the media. He didn’t smile. Rumors had circulated for months that Eastman — the county’s largest employer with 9,500 workers here — would downsize significantly, move its corporate headquarters from Kingsport, or close its local operations.

Now the dreaded news came. Deavenport said Eastman was struggling and would need to cut its work force by 1,200 people before the end of the year.

It would be the first layoff in the company’s long history, and Kingsport most likely would bear the brunt of the impact.

“It paralyzed our community for a time. It affected our psyche as a community,” said Jeanette Blazier, who had been elected mayor of Kingsport a few months before Eastman’s announcement.

“There was a sense of loss of hope — where do we go from here? How do we recover from this? Will we ever recover from this?”

The news out of Eastman compounded an already bleak economic picture. Kingsport had been known as an industry town since its founding in 1917, but much of that industry was disappearing.

In the first quarter of 1998, the region lost more than 4,000 jobs — most of them in manufacturing, and many of them in Kingsport. Those job losses continued into the next year, when in January 1999 Willamette’s downtown paper mill announced it would cut 150 jobs.

In August that year, JPS Industries announced it would cut 100 jobs at its Borden Mill plant in Kingsport.

Eastman’s job cuts were announced two months later. Some 630 employees in Kingsport opted for early retirement, while another 240 were involuntarily sent home.

As jobs were lost, so were people, many of whom had to leave the area in search of work. The exodus trickled down throughout the city’s economy. Stores and restaurants laid off workers or closed up shop. The housing market became stagnant. Houses left vacant by folks moving from the area sat empty for months. Builders stopped constructing new housing developments in Kingsport and set their sights on neighboring towns where opportunity seemed abundant.

One alderman at the time was quoted as saying, “The last one to leave — turn the lights out.”

“It was a hard time to be optimistic about Kingsport’s future,” said Jeff Fleming, assistant city manager for development. “There was no reason for us to change what we were doing until the outside threats became so significant that we questioned our community’s ability to survive.”

The Summit

For years, Kingsport had relied on its major employer — Eastman Chemical Co. — to carry the economic load. At one time, Eastman employed 15,000 people in the city, but those numbers were quickly dwindling. By the end of 1999, the chemical company would employ 8,630 in Kingsport.

Dennis Phillips, now Kingsport mayor, moved to the city in 1967.

“It was just a fact — you get a job at Eastman and you’re there for life. That’s all people had ever known throughout East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. This (Eastman layoff) was a major, major shock to people, and it had a major effect on the real estate market, the automobile industry, moods of people. ... There was just a very negative feeling,” Phillips said.

As Kingsport’s new mayor at the time, Blazier had her work cut out. In November 1999, she launched an economic summit at MeadowView and called on the city’s stakeholders — businessmen, industry leaders, bankers, store owners — to join together for the future of Kingsport. She said she wanted to bring a “message of hope.”

“I remember saying, ‘It’s a new day. We can make it so. We can position ourselves for success,’” Blazier said.

The city brought in an economist from the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Research Associates, who said to outsiders, Kingsport looked like a slow growing city with an aging population and “zero” percentage of young, upwardly mobile, single adults. He said Kingsport’s industrial sector accounted for 40 percent of its economy, leaving the city vulnerable.

Miles Burdine, chief executive officer of the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, recalled the consultant’s harsh picture of his hometown.

“The words ‘rust belt community’ were used often,” Burdine said. “The consultant that was asked to come in and give us an outside view of what Kingsport looked like, was rather alarming.”

It was a wake-up call of sorts for many folks at the summit. City and community leaders set to work to identify shared goals that could redefine Kingsport. And several different themes were determined as focal points, such as education, work force development, retail and quality of life. Blazier made sure that “champions” — as she called them — were selected before the end of the summit to lead teams in the various areas.

At the end of the summit and with young children on hand, Blazier held a symbolic groundbreaking for the city’s future.

“I remember saying, instead of focusing on this which seems bleak, we can begin focusing on our future, and together, we can have a bright future,” Blazier said.

The Result

Today, the foundation that was laid nearly a decade ago has helped build Kingsport into a strong and vibrant community. Instead of layoffs, many companies are now hiring — including Eastman.

In February 2006, Eastman announced it had hired 250 people in 2005, and would hire more than 2,000 more from 2006 through 2010.

In July this year, Eastman announced it will invest more than $1.3 billion at its Kingsport headquarters and manufacturing complex in the next five years to modernize the plant and ensure its viability into the future.

Called Project Reinvest, the initiative will pump about $265 million every year through 2012 into the Kingsport operations.

Eastman isn’t the only company announcing positive growth. In late October, city officials broke ground for a new $8 million FedEx facility at Gateway Commerce Park. The facility will include 90,000 square feet, with plans for a 20,000-square-foot expansion within 10 years. FedEx initially plans to hire 80 employees.

With more people moving in, new housing developments are being constructed, and new retail stores are on the rise. More educational opportunities are being developed, and the downtown district is coming alive with new shops, restaurants and entertainment options.

“Things were rather bleak, but our people came together — we all came together to collaborate on creating this growth that we’re seeing right before our eyes,” Blazier said.

She said each new mayor and each new alderman must do their part “to keep things moving.”

“You can’t finish it in one administration, but if each will do their part to keep things moving ... we can realize the very best for our community,” she said.

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