BLOUNTVILLE — When Richard Venable leaves the helm of NETWORKS — Sullivan Partnership Dec. 31 after more than seven years, he leaves behind more than 4,100 jobs created and $260 million in investments through projects with which NETWORKS was directly involved.
The future for the politician-turned-economic-developer is a bit more uncertain; although, he said he has his consultancy contract with NETWORKS, trucking business and family issues to fill his time starting Jan. 1.
The $64,000 question in Sullivan County politics has been over speculation that Venable will seek his former position as Sullivan County mayor, held by fellow Republican and fellow former state Rep. Steve Godsey.
“There might be a time to think about that, but it ain’t now,” Venable said in a Dec. 10 interview at his NETWORKS office near Tri-Cities Regional Airport. “I can’t tell you there will be a time in the future [for politics].”
Venable, 69, is a native of Gate City, Va., is married and has two sons and a grandson.
Regardless of his present and future, Venable’s past leaves an imprint on NETWORKS.
Under Venable’s watch
Jack Lawson, director of economic development for NETWORKS and former Sullivan County economic development executive director when the county, Kingsport and Bristol had three distinct — and sometimes competing — efforts, gave a summary of Venble’s time with NETWORKS during the Dec. 5 meeting.
Aside from the 4,120 new jobs and $260 million in new capital investments, Lawson said Venable was instrumental in obtaining more than $8 million in grants to companies and local government for roads, buildings, infrastructure and training, as well as the acquisition of 383 acres, or $6 million worth of land, for development of industrial parks.
Awards include the Governor’s Three Star Community program each year from 2007 to 2013, being a Connected Tennessee Community in 2013, having Select Tennessee certified “shovel ready” sites at Aviation Park I, Partnership Park II and the BTES Business Park.
Also, NETWORKS received the Tennessee Center for Performance Excellence’s 2008 Internation Recognition, 2009 Commitment Award and in 2010 documented “Best Practices” for the NETWORKS scorecards and an Education-Workforce Summit.
NETWORKS also received a Life Long Learning Start from the Workforce Investment Board each year from 2007 to 2013, won Best Community Brochure from the National Active Retirement Association in 2008, won the Economic and Community Development’s LinkTenn Website Design Excellence award in 2009 and the Tennessee Development District Association’s Rebuild Tennessee Award in 2010.
Sullivan County was named one of the top five automotive development sites by Expansion Solutions Magazine in 2011, and the Tennessee Valley Authority designated the Bristol West site a Certified Data Center Site in 2010.
Lawson said the staff wanted to thank Venable for his leadership and vision, and Venable said NETWORKS could have accomplished little without the staff, which has changed through the years but currently includes Lawson, Director of Business Development Betty Martin, administrative assistant Marsha Fandl and Michael Parker, business economic and community development analyst. All but Parker have been with NETWORKS since the beginning. Jeanette Scalf, who works for the city of Kingsport, formerly worked for NETWORKS.
The NETWORKS effort initially was lead by former Johnson City City Manager John Campbell, until he accepted the job as Kingsport city manager after a year.
Gary Sproyles was the interim CEO for a year, and Venable will have served as CEO for about seven years and two months when he steps down at the end of December.
Plans are for the new CEO to be named before the end of the year. Outgoing NETWORKS board Chairman Charlie Floyd and incoming Chairman Jim Street are negotiating a pay plan with the candidate.
The new CEO’s base pay is not to exceed Venable’s base pay of $110,000. Venable also receives a car allowance and health insurance allowance, since he is not on the county’s health insurance plan, bringing his compensation to $124,000.
Venable said his contract to remain up to six months, on a month-to-month basis, will allow him to help the new CEO transition into the position and will make Venable available to continue, if the new CEO wishes, working on prospects from China and Japan.
Economic lessons learned
Venable, a former state lawmaker, two-time U.S. congressional GOP primary candidate and former Sullivan County Republican Party chairman, said he’s learned a lot since he took the helm of NETWORKS Oct. 1, 2006.
His official start date was to be Oct. 2 of that year, but a prospective deal for Honda Jet to put its jet engine manufacturing operation in Blountville near the airport prompted him to begin a day earlier than planned.
Sullivan County ended up losing the location of the operation to Burlington, N.C., coming in second. But Venable said he learned as much from the effort to lure Honda Jet as from any individual project.
Those lessons included, he said, that the airport is world-class and that you need to be well-versed on the culture of the folks with whom you are dealing, in this case Japanese.
“It’s viable. We know we could have gotten that project,” Venable said. With today’s Aviation Park I, 100 acres adjacent to the airport, he said, if another Honda Jet came, it likely would locate here.
No land sales since 2007
Another hard lesson has been that NETWORKS hasn’t sold or conveyed any land to a prospect from its industrial parks since the 13-acre FedEx Ground property in Partnership Park III, known as Gateway Commerce Park at the intersection of Interstates 81 and 26.
“It’s been suggested we give away land,” Venable said of the situation, which has hurt the NETWORKS weighted Performance Scorecard because land sales account for 15 percent of the weighted score.
For a year-end look at NETWORKS using both scorecards, see the Kingsport Times-News Sunday business article from Dec. 15.
In the great scheme of things, he said such an idea is not out of the question in light of some states and jurisdictions that give tax incentives and breaks.
Land is available at Partnership Park I near the airport, Partnership II in Bristol, Tenn., and Partnership Park III in Kingsport, as well as other industrial parks — including the granddaddy of regional economic development parks, the Tri-County Industrial Park in Piney Flats.
Started more than four years ago, the parks still have about 12 acres of developable land and other developed sites with buildings available.
Venable said local authorities were extremely forward-looking in that endeavor. Likewise, he said, NETWORKS officials made a good choice in October by approving a new spec, or speculative, building for Gateway Commerce Park, also known as Partnership Park III, that should be done by mid-summer barring any extraordinary weather issues.
Venable said that $1.8 million project, including $300,000 for grading already under way, should be done by mid-summer of 2014.
How to measure success, view prospects for future
Venable said that when the consultant who helped NETWORKS narrow the field of applicants to replace him first came to the office, he asked about NETWORKS’ way of counting jobs and capital investment.
Venable said that basically consists of counting jobs when a business announced them but going further to count only jobs a business promised to Tennessee in exchange for incentives.
He said the consultant said that was the generally accepted way of doing things and pretty universal, which Venable said validated how NETWORKS has counted its successes through the years.
NETWORKS doesn’t take credit for projects like the Eastman Chemical Company’s $1.6 billion expansion and the 300 new jobs derived from that because NETWORKS wasn’t directly involved in that project.
However, NETWORKS does track those projects along with ones with which it helped.
Venable said that the old joke about economic developers always promising “tomorrow will be a better day” may be a cliche, but he said he truly believes that for Sullivan County and the three cities that formed NETWORKS in 2004.
Venable said his time as a state lawmaker, congressional primary candidate and county mayor helped him in economic development, both because of experiences from those endeavors and because of connections with folks he made along the way.
“I’ve always been overly optimistic,” Venable said of his outlook on economic development and life in general. “I’ve never found being pessimistic helps us.”