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Burke reflects on tenure as head of regional economic development group

Sharon Caskey Hayes • Nov 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Andy Burke, who turns 65 this month, is retiring at the end of the year as CEO of the Regional Alliance for Economic Development. Burke and his wife, Catherine, plan to stay in the region. Ned Jilton II photo.


He’s headed the Regional Alliance for Economic Development since its formation in 2005.

Now Andy Burke is ready to move onto the next step in his life.

Burke, who turns 65 later this month, will officially retire as chief executive officer of the alliance at the end of the year.

When he took the job in the fall of 2005, he knew he wanted to retire when he reached 65. And he said he plans to stick with that decision — despite the nation’s economic downturn.

“It is absolutely the wrong time to stop working, but it’s the right time for me,” Burke said.

The last three years

The Regional Alliance — formerly called the Tri-Cities Economic Development Alliance, was formed in 2005 by local business and community leaders as an umbrella organization designed to market the 10-county region around the world. At the outset, the goal of the public/private effort was to strengthen the region’s economy through job creation and new capital investment.

At a news conference in early 2005, organizers said they hoped the effort would lead to the creation of 7,200 high-paying jobs in the coming five years, as well as 4,032 indirect jobs.

The alliance has pointed to information from ETSU, saying that more than 14,000 jobs were added from the third quarter of 2005 to the third quarter of 2007.

But the alliance doesn’t take credit for those numbers.

“Maybe the fact that we formed the organization and created an aggressive marketing program, maybe that had some positive impact on companies that were already here and began to employ more people,” Burke said.

He said he’s always viewed the alliance as a marketing organization whose mission is to position the region in the global marketplace, and enhance and support local economic development efforts.

To that end, Burke has traveled to various shows and conventions, most recently to Germany last month with a delegation of the state to try and attract automotive suppliers to the region.

And with Burke at the helm, the alliance has established an aggressive marketing strategy to get the word out to site selection consultants about the Tri-Cities region. The strategy includes a Web site at www.alliancetnva.com which showcases the region. Burke also introduced the Performance USA identity promotion, and the Bristol Motor Speedway VIP consultant project, in which Burke escorted site selection consultants to BMS races to show off the area.

The alliance also started communicating directly with companies that might be interested in moving or relocating their operations. It developed a database of about 3,000 companies in three industry clusters — automotive, pharmaceutical and aviation — and has launched a direct mail postcard campaign to get their attention.

Burke said he knows of nearly 50 companies that have looked at the region as a potential site for expansion or relocation as a result of the alliance’s efforts.

“One of the things that I wanted to do when I got here was to fill that pipeline up with companies that were looking,” Burke said.

“I can safely say that we are much more known today than we were in 2005, and we’ve done that through a very aggressive marketing effort,” he said.

In addition, the alliance houses the Mountain South World Trade Center, which is part of the World Trade Centers Association, a nonprofit group established in 1970 to encourage creation and expansion of global business. Through the parent organization, World Trade Centers are part of a network of more than 300 WTCs around the globe. Locally, businesses can get trade information through the WTC, establish contacts and take advantage of networking opportunities that could lead to increased business, and attend information and educational sessions about global trade.

The alliance secured the World Trade Center license in 2005 for $250,000, and it pays another $10,000 each year in annual dues to the WTC parent organization.

“I still think the investment that was made originally into the World Trade Center to get a license was still a good investment,” Burke said. “I hope some day the alliance can prove that there can be a significant return on that investment. But in today’s economy, that’s probably going to be pretty tough.”

Still, Burke said the economy will eventually pick up.

“And with the World Trade Center, we’re going to be well positioned for some good things to happen,” he said.

Hindsight is 20/20

Looking back, Burke said the alliance wasn’t formed at the best time for economic development.

“We started it at a time when the economy was beginning to take a downward turn. The evidence of problems in the housing market came up in 2005, and things were beginning to surface. But I don’t think anybody at the time could have predicted what we would have gone through over the last 9 or 10 months,” Burke said. “Hindsight is always 20/20.”

He said the alliance has put into place a marketing effort to help the region in its recruitment efforts once the economy turns around.

“I think we’ve done what really needed to be done to begin to position this region out in the global marketplace as a viable location for business and industry,” Burke said.

“But we’re going to be going through a very tough time over the near term. And we may need to have more focus on the retention and expansion of existing business and industry and really pay close attention to that as we move forward,” Burke said.

Asked what he would do differently, Burke said he would establish more relationships and partnerships if he had it to do over, particularly with the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

“Because partnerships and relationships are critical as we move forward,” Burke said.

And relationships among all the region’s county leaders are just as important.

“We need to build at least the appearance of a united front of all of these counties in Northeast Tennessee, and I’m not really sure how you do that,” Burke said.

He said the region has strong economic development professionals at the local levels along with solid chambers of commerce and strong elected officials.

“Everything is in place. Now the question is — how do we get all of that moving in the same direction, singing in the same tune, to bring recognition to this region,” Burke said.

Although he’s retiring, Burke said he will help his successor and the alliance in any way he can.

The alliance board has asked Tom Ferguson, owner of Ferguson Development Network, to step in as interim president and CEO. Ferguson has already started his new duties and will transition with Burke through the end of the year.

Ferguson helped form the Greene County Partnership in 1993 and served as the organization’s president until 2001. During his tenure the partnership attracted 18 new manufacturing and distribution companies and added more than 4,000 direct new jobs, generating more than $400 million in new capital investment.

In March 2001, Ferguson left the partnership to form Ferguson Development Network, a consulting company providing services to businesses, communities and economic development organizations. In 2003 Ferguson opened Ferguson Real Estate and Development, which focused strictly on industrial and commercial real estate. That company is closing as a result of Ferguson’s move to the alliance.

A long career

Burke grew up in Texas, the middle of three boys in the family. He learned the value of hard work and saving money early on. At age 9, he got a job as a newspaper delivery boy, getting up at 4 a.m. every morning to take care of his responsibilities. He continued delivering newspapers until he entered college at age 18.

In addition to delivering newspapers, Burke took various jobs while in school, including working in a drug store and tire business. And during the summer he worked construction.

“I’d get up at 4 o’clock and deliver 300 papers, then be at my construction job at 7 and work there until 5:30,” Burke said.

Once in college, he took extra courses as well as summer classes to complete his degree in three years.

Meanwhile, he had joined the Navy Reserves as a junior in high school, and spent five years on active military training duty. His dream was to become a Navy pilot, but a back injury put those plans to rest.

After graduating college, Burke went to work in 1965 for Texas Power & Light as a commercial service advisor in Dallas. He worked his way up the ladder and was sales manager in Garland, Texas, in six years.

That’s when he began exploring the job market in South Carolina, the home state of his wife, Catherine. He landed a job at a utility in South Carolina and spent the next 17 years there, eventually becoming a vice president of the company, in charge of marketing and corporate communications.

Burke was then recruited to Reno, Nevada, and served as vice president of marketing for another utility holding company. After two years, he had the opportunity to move back east, and relocated to Virginia Beach, serving as director of economic development for five years.

From 1994 to 2000, he headed Forward Oklahoma City, an economic development organization responsible for creating more than 40,000 jobs under his leadership.

And before coming to the Tri-Cities, Burke was president of the Greensboro (N.C.) Economic Development Partnership for five years.

When he was recruited to come to the Tri-Cities, Burke said he visited the area and liked what he saw.

“Plus, this was an opportunity to build an organization from the ground up. I had never done that. So that was attractive for me,” he said.

“It’s been an interesting career.”

As for the future, Burke said he’s been contacted by some consulting firms in Atlanta.

“They expressed an interest in talking to me after things kind of settle out after the first of the year. I haven’t made a decision about that,” Burke said.

“I’m just sort of waiting to see what God has in store for me. All my options are left open.”

Meanwhile, Burke said he and his wife plan to stay here. They own a house in Johnson City and are involved in their community and church.

“We love this region. It’s probably the most beautiful place we’ve every lived, and we plan to stay here,” he said.

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