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Amazon announces plans for distribution center in Bristol, Virginia

BRISTOL, Va. — Two years after Amazon officials and Gov. Ralph Northam toured Southwest Virginia, the company announced plans for its first delivery center in the region on Wednesday.

The facility, to be sited near Interstate 81’s Exit 7, will allow Amazon to better serve rural customers in the region, said Bristol, Virginia City Manager Randy Eads.

According to an Amazon press release on Wednesday, the facility will open in the Bristol Virginia Industrial Park at 103 Thomas Road in an existing building and create “hundreds” of jobs. Eads said that contractor J.A. Street and Associates will complete work on the building and additional parking space in July, with the facility opening by late summer or early fall.

According to Amazon spokesperson Courtney Johnson Norman, the delivery center will add last-mile delivery capability as a reception point for packages from the company’s fulfillment and sortation centers. From there, independent contractors and delivery businesses will handle delivery to customers.

Wages for center employees will start at $15 per hour and various benefits on the first day of employment, Norman said.

Norman called the new center an opportunity for entrepreneurs looking to handle Amazon customer deliveries.

“Obviously it’s great news for the city,” Eads said. “It’s a great opportunity for our citizens and another choice of employment for residents.”

Eads pointed to the impact that Amazon, the Michael Waltrip Brewery (slated for a summer opening), and the planned 2023 opening of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino will have on Bristol’s economy.

Bristol Vice Mayor Anthony Farnum called the announcement “a great day for Bristol.”

“Southwest Virginia is open for business,” said Farnum, “and the capital of Southwest Virginia, Bristol, is leading the way.”

In 2019, Northam and Amazon officials held a roundtable meeting in St. Paul with regional government and business leaders pitching the area as a potential site for company operations, although the company’s team made no comment on planned activity then.

Tri-Cities government and business leaders on Wednesday applauded Amazon’s announcement.

“That visit followed the General Assembly’s approval of legislation to incentivize a second Amazon headquarters in the commonwealth,” said state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, referring to the 2019 roundtable. “I am thrilled that these efforts have provided a foundation for today’s announcement that Amazon will establish a delivery station in Bristol.”

Fifth District state Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, and First District state Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, credited economic development partnership InvestSWVA team with helping show Amazon the area and its workforce quality.

“We look forward to a mutually beneficial relationship with Amazon for years to come,” O’Quinn added.

LENOWISCO Planning District Executive Director Duane Miller said the Amazon announcement highlights how a local business success spreads beyond the locality.

“Studies show a 40–50-mile radius of economic impact with new business locations like this,” Miller said. “The exposure an Amazon or similar company can bring to the region is an important collateral effect. Any win in Southwest Virginia is a win for all of us, especially if we get an Amazon.”

Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable said Amazon’s choice to locate in the area shows the region is “on the map” when it comes to economic development.

“What’s good for the region is good for us all,” Venable said. “This certainly will be jobs for Sullivan Countians. I’m happy for Bristol, Virginia, and I look forward to working with them to maximize the opportunities this brings.”

Kingsport City Manager Chris McCartt said the positive economic impact of this announcement will be felt throughout all of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

“We are pleased to hear that Amazon has announced they are making an investment in Bristol, Virginia, which we hope is the first of more to come by this company in our region,” said McCartt. “Amazon’s entry into our region comes as really no surprise as more and more Americans turned to online shopping during the pandemic, thus creating more demand.”

Kingsport Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Miles Burdine congratulated Bristol for the Amazon facility.

“Every time a company chooses to come to this region, regardless of the specific location, it benefits all of us,” Burdine said.

“We welcome the Amazon distribution center,” Burdine said, “and we are here to support them in any way possible.”

Networks Sullivan Partnership CEO Clay Walker pointed to the employment opportunities on both sides of the state line with the new center.

“Amazon minimum starting wage is $15 an hour with benefits, so that will attract a few folks, I’m sure,” Walker said, adding congratulations to site project coordinator J.A. Street for site preparation.

“They have a great building there,” he said of the center’s location, “and I know they are thrilled to have such a recognizable brand fill it and they certainly welcome the jobs, as we all do.”

Biden to the nation and world: 'America is rising anew'

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden declared Wednesday night in his first address to a joint session of Congress that “America is rising anew,” and pointed optimistically to the nation’s emergence from the pandemic as a vital moment to rebuild the U.S. economy and fundamentally transform government roles in American life.

Biden marked his first 100 days in office as the nation pushes out of a menacing mix of crises, making his case before a pared-down gathering of mask-wearing legislators because of pandemic restrictions.

Speaking in highly personal terms while demanding massive structural changes, the president urged a $1.8 trillion investment in children, families and education to help rebuild an economy devastated by the virus and compete with rising global competitors.

His speech took place in a setting unlike any other presidential address in the familiar venue, with the U.S. Capitol still surrounded by fencing after the building was stormed in January by insurrectionists protesting his election.

The nationally televised ritual of a president standing before Congress for the first time was one of the most watched moments of Biden’s presidency so far, a chance to sell his plans to voters of both parties, even if Republican lawmakers prove resistant.

“America is ready for takeoff. We are working again. Dreaming again. Discovering again. Leading the world again. We have shown each other and the world: There is no quit in America,” Biden said.

“I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,” he said. “Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength.”

This year’s scene at the front of the House chamber had a historic look: For the first time, a female vice president, Kamala Harris, was seated behind the chief executive. And she was next to another woman, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both clad in pastel.

The first ovation came as Biden greeted, “Madam Vice President.” He added “No president has ever said those words from this podium, and it’s about time.”

The scene was familiar yet strange, with members of Congress spread out, a sole Supreme Court justice in attendance and many Republicans citing “scheduling conflicts” to stay away. There was no need for a “designated survivor,” with so many Cabinet members not there, and the chamber was so sparsely populated that individual claps could be heard echoing off the walls.

Biden was upbeat and forceful.

“I have never been more confident or more optimistic about America,” he said. “We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy — of pandemic and pain — and ‘We the People’ did not flinch.”

He repeatedly hammered home how his plans would put Americans back to work, restoring millions of jobs lost to the virus. He laid out a sweeping proposal for universal preschool, two years of free community college, $225 billion for child care and monthly payments of at least $250 to parents. His ideas target frailties that were uncovered by the pandemic, and he argues that that economic growth will best come from taxing the rich to help the middle class and the poor.

For Biden, whose moment has been nearly a half century in the making, his speech also provided an update on combating the COVID-19 crisis he was elected to tame, showcasing hundreds of millions of vaccinations and relief checks delivered to help offset the devastation wrought by a virus that has killed more than 573,000 people in the United States. He also championed his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, a staggering figure to be financed by higher taxes on corporations.

Unimpressed, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said in the Republicans’ designated response that Biden was claiming too much credit in fighting the pandemic and reviving the economy.

“This administration inherited a tide that had already turned,” Scott said. “The coronavirus is on the run.”

Seizing an opportunity born of calamity, Biden has embraced major action over incremental change. But he will be forced to thread a needle between Republicans who cry government overreach and some Democrats who fear he won’t go big enough.

The Democratic president’s strategy is to sidestep polarization and appeal directly to voters. His prime-time speech underscored a trio of central campaign promises: to manage the deadly pandemic, to turn down the tension in Washington in the aftermath of the insurrection and to restore faith in government as an effective force for good.

Biden also was addressing an issue rarely confronted by an American president, namely that in order to compete with autocracies like China, the nation needs “to prove that democracy still works” after his predecessor’s baseless claims of election fraud and the ensuing attack on the U.S. Capitol.

No American politician has more familiarity with the presidential address to Congress than Biden. He spent three decades in the audience as a senator and eight years as vice president seated behind President Barack Obama during the annual address.

Yet the desire for swift action is born from political necessity. Biden understands that the time for passing his agenda could be perilously short given that presidents’ parties historically lose congressional seats in the midterm elections, less than two years away. The Democrats’ margins are already razor-thin.

He spoke against a backdrop of the weakening but still lethal pandemic, staggering unemployment and a roiling debate about police violence against Blacks. Biden also used his address to touch on the broader national reckoning over race in America, and to call on Congress to act on prescription drug pricing, gun control and modernizing the nation’s immigration system.

In his first three months in office, Biden has signed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill — passed without a single GOP vote — and has shepherded direct payments of $1,400 per person to more than 160 million households. Hundreds of billions of dollars in aid will soon arrive for state and local governments, enough money that overall U.S. growth this year could eclipse 6% — a level not seen since 1984. Administration officials are betting that it will be enough to bring back all 8.4 million jobs lost to the pandemic by next year.

A significant amount proposed Wednesday would ensure that eligible families receive at least $250 monthly per child through 2025, extending the enhanced tax credit that was part of Biden’s COVID-19 aid. There would be more than $400 billion for subsidized child care and free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

Another combined $425 billion would go to permanently reduce health insurance premiums for people who receive coverage through the Affordable Care Act, as well a national paid family and medical leave program. Further spending would be directed toward Pell Grants, historically Black and tribal institutions and allow people to could attend community college tuition-free for two years.

Funding all of this would be a series of tax increases on the wealthy that would raise about $1.5 trillion over a decade.

Biden wants to raise the top tax rate on the most affluent families from 37% to 39.6%. People earning in excess of $1 million a year would see their rate on capital gains — the profits from a sale of a stock or home — nearly double from 20% to 39.6%, which would mean the wealthiest Americans could no longer pay at a lower rate than many families who identify as middle class.

He took aim at a hallmark achievement of the Trump presidency, saying the 2017 tax cuts failed to deliver on Republicans’ promise of strong growth. It was a recognition of how narrow the common ground is between the two parties.

“When you hear someone say that they don’t want to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1% and on corporate America – ask them: whose taxes are you going to raise instead, and whose are you going to cut?” Biden said.

Republican lawmakers in Congress so far have balked at the price tags of Biden’s plans, complicating the chances of passage in a deeply divided Washington.


Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Michael Tackett contributed to this report.

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With variant spread increasing, vaccine appointments go unfilled in NET

JOHNSON CITY — A more transmissible variant of the novel coronavirus is now widespread in Northeast Tennessee and is fueling new cases and hospitalizations, Ballad Health officials said on Wednesday.

“Today, I think we’re seeing that we do have a fair amount of spread (of the B.1.1.7 variant) in the region,” said Ballad Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton. “B.1.1.7 has overtaken the original strain of COVID-19 in the region, and really now the B.1.1.7 strain is the dominant strain that we’re seeing.”

The variant was first identified in the United Kingdom last September and is the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States.

Ballad recently contracted with Biobot Analytics to test the region’s wastewater for the presence of the variant, which was first identified in Northeast Tennessee in March. Tennessee identified its first case of the variant in January.

In addition to the B.1.1.7 variant, both the P.1 (Brazil) and B.1.351 (South Africa) variants have been identified in the region, Deaton said.

Dr. Clay Runnels, the hospital system’s chief physician executive, said the average amount of virus detected at their testing sites was higher than the nationwide average among other sites tested by BioBot. Ballad and Biobot Analytics will conduct an additional three cycles of testing over a four-week period, with the next results expected in about a week.

Ballad Health: More transmissible COVID-19 strain propelling surge

“These variants are also aggressive and cause concern that we could have additional spread,” said Deaton. “There is this great deal of virus still in our community, and in order for us to curtail it we have to do the things we continue to talk about.

“It’s really important for us to be aware, and although we feel mask mandates will go away, obviously through the orders from the governor and from our local mayors, it’s still important to take personal responsibility to wear a mask appropriately when you’re in large gatherings.”

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee ended local authority to issue mask mandates as well as all statewide public health orders on Tuesday as he declared the virus was no longer a public health emergency and was instead a “managed public health issue.”

Deaton said any statewide decision should be made in Nashville, though the region is not out of the woods yet.

“I still think that it’s something we have to focus on,” Deaton said. “I think it is an issue for us still locally, so, yes, for us as an organization it is still a heightened issue for us, and we deal with it. We’re obviously still conducting our emergency operations center every day or at least three days a week, we still have phone calls with our local mayors, we’re still doing all the things we were doing in the past, so it’s still a very important issue and it is still an emergency for us.”

More younger people are being hospitalized, dropping the average age of hospitalization to 59.6 years old.

Sixty-two percent of those hospitalized are between ages 40 and 69, with a “significant” number of 30- and 40-year-olds ending up in the hospital. Those who are hospitalized are also coming in sicker, according to system numbers indicating a higher proportion of people in intensive care and on ventilators than during a hospitalization peak in December and January.

Of the 122 people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday, nearly a quarter of them were in intensive care, while 18% were on ventilators. When Ballad reported a peak of 361 hospitalizations on Jan. 5, ICU patients made up about 18.8% of hospitalizations while people on ventilators accounted for 10.2% of patients.

Despite repeated calls from health officials for the public to get the vaccine, which significantly reduces the risk of severe illness, demand for vaccine appointments has fallen considerably in recent weeks: Ballad officials estimated only about 10% to 20% of first-dose vaccine appointments are being booked.

The Northeast Regional Health Office, which oversees health departments in seven of the region’s eight counties, has seen fewer than 20% of available appointments booked, though it announced on Tuesday it would no longer require appointments to receive the vaccine.

Vaccine appointments “Here’s what’s not changed: The vaccine is still a major weapon against all of these strains and can help us get through the pandemic and get to herd immunity,” said Runnels. “We’re going to continue to encourage people and hope you will encourage your friends, family, neighbors who are eligible to go get the vaccine. It can definitely help save some lives and reduce morbidity in the community as well.”

Dr. David Kirschke, medical director of the regional health office, said staff began taking vaccine doses into community settings like churches and workplaces as demand has fallen at drive-thru clinics. Kirschke said vaccine uptake has been lower in more rural counties and with young adults, a trend that also appears with the flu vaccine “perhaps because of a lower perceived risk from the virus.”

“We encourage everyone to get vaccinated because, although the risk does decrease with decreasing age, we see hospitalizations and deaths in all age groups,” Kirschke said. “Also, younger people can transmit coronavirus to older family members and friends. We encourage anyone not already vaccinated to look to credible sources of information, such as the (Tennessee Department of Health) or (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) website, or to talk with their health care provider.

“(The) COVID-19 vaccine is one of our best tools, along with other prevention measures such as mask use, to protect ourselves and our communities from the pandemic,” he said.

NET by the Numbers

Cases: 56,167 (+120). Past seven days: 792

New cases by county: Carter 12, Greene 7, Hancock 1, Hawkins 26, Johnson 2, Sullivan 31, Unicoi 6, Washington 35.

Active cases: 1,413 (-10)

Active cases by county: Carter 135, Greene 100, Hancock 22, Hawkins 149, Johnson 69, Sullivan 559, Unicoi 60, Washington 319.

New tests: 871 (8.15% positivity rate )

New hospitalizations: 8. Past seven days: 27

Deaths: 1,049 (+1). Past seven days: 5

Variants in Tennessee

1,473 confirmed cases of the B.1.1.7 (U.K.) variant

19 cases of the B.1.427 (California) variant

16 cases of the B.1.429 (California) variant

9 cases of the P.1 (Brazil) variant

4 cases of the B.1.351 (South Africa) variant

— Data from Tennessee Department of Health

Fun Fest returning for 40th anniversary

KINGSPORT — The Kingsport Chamber of Commerce is planning to hold Fun Fest this year just like any normal year, announcing on Wednesday the weeklong community celebration will take place from July 16-24.

Fun Fest, now in its 40th year, did not happen in the traditional sense last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Visit Kingsport hosted some virtual events, The Taste was con- ducted via take- out and “Un Fest” shirts were sold instead of the traditional Fun Fest ones.

This year, the chamber is planning Fun Fest in a normal capacity, said Emily Thompson, director of Fun Fest and Special Events for Visit Kingsport.

“Some events may take a year off and we’re still in the process of gathering events. We’ve not got a final plan,” Thompson said. “Key pieces are still in motion, we’re going to have our iconic events, and we’ve got new events in the works.”

Registration is open for the Crazy 8’s road race, the chamber is accepting entries for the hot air balloon race and The Taste, and announcements are coming soon about the concerts. Thompson said the chamber is still accepting ideas for events, and as we get closer to Fun Fest, if modifications have to be made due to COVID-19, those will be made as necessary.

Expect to hear some solid announcements about Fun Fest around the middle of May.

“We think the community is ready for Fun Fest, and we’re planning to give the community the best 40th anniversary we can,” Thompson said.

With candidates’ signs lining Fort Henry Drive, early voting for Kingsport’s municipal election began on Wednesday at the Kingsport Civic Audi…

Productions moved to the Moonlite Drive-in in 2020 after indoor entertainment venues shut down due to the pandemic.