Two years ago Mark Costa, chairman and CEO of Eastman Chemical, challenged the region to come together to promote economic development. “The reality is the way we’re configured today it’s not feasible to really productively and efficiently interact with this region and try and bring business here,” said Costa.
But creating a structure to advance regional economic development may not be possible under current leadership, which has yet, it seems, to get its ducks in a row.
In September 2019 the area’s two leading economic development organizations, the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership (NTREP) and NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership, released a joint statement committing to cooperation on economic development and opening the door to a merger.
Members of both groups’ boards and staffs were to continue meeting to understand what a single economic development organization might look like.
Meanwhile, a $48,000 study to come up with a regional identity settled on “Appalachian Highlands,” which, frankly, has not been widely, nor well, received. As well, plans to merge NTREP and NETWORKS seem to have stalled over different visions of how to proceed.
“We thought we had something collectively and collaboratively that we worked on that was a good next step that had some timelines attached to it,” Mitch Miller, CEO of NTREP, said last fall. “It was a plan we’d been working on ... and then a new plan got introduced (by NETWORKS) that we hadn’t even seen.”
NETWORKS presented its board with a proposal that would put it in the role of managing key functions of traditional economic development — marketing and recruiting in primary industry sectors, suggesting in effect that NTREP support this approach. But this apparently didn’t align with a memorandum of understanding that focused on collaborating on the establishment of a regional hub organization that would conduct economic development.
Then came a different approach. It would use the First Tennessee Development District (FTDD) to serve as the conduit to an umbrella organization for economic growth in the region. FTTD includes local governments of the eight regional counties and is focused on environmental, historic, housing and industrial programs, among other initiatives. The proposal would create a bigger footprint under a “regional hub.”
But at the time, NETWORKS was not a player. And other organizations and cities had lots of questions that have been unanswered and remain so following a recent meeting of FTTD where its board voted 9-4 to “establish a working relationship” with the public/private hub organization despite that it does not yet exist. Its bylaws haven’t even been written.
Greeneville Mayor W.T. Daniels, Elizabethton Mayor Curt Alexander, Bristol Mayor Mahlon Luttrell and Greene County Mayor Kevin Morrison voted against the proposal, citing a lack of information. Luttrell said while Bristol is not opposed to collaboration on economic development efforts, he questioned the need for FTDD to commit to the regional hub before elected officials see “a full scope” of what it will look like. “I cannot support anything at this point. I need to have information to take back to our council. In addition, this was not an agenda item any of us could prepare for,” said Luttrell.
Alexander said he wanted to know how the work of the new regional hub would be any different from what NTREP and NETWORKS are doing now. And Daniels questioned why the group was even meeting. “I mean if it’s not part of the development district what are we doing, why are we even talking about this?” he asked.
The motion seems along the lines of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s famous remark on Obamacare that “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”
Should not the concept of a hub organization managing regional economic development be detailed in full including staff and operation and its relationship directly and indirectly with the region’s political bodies before they are asked to work with it?