JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A new regional economic development “hub” is being formed with financial support from the private sector, the group’s leaders announced at a press conference on Wednesday.
“We have something really special here, and we have to make sure that we protect the jobs and the livelihoods of the people who live in this region, and that’s what it’s all about,” said the Chairman of the Board of the new organization, Bristol Motor Speedway (BMS). Chairman Jerry Caldwell told News Channel 11 in a one-on-one interview ahead of the announcement.
Temporarily called NETNHub and relying only on private donations for now, the organization will include both private sector, “social sector” and local government representatives on its executive committee. Its formation comes about three years after business and local government leaders began talking seriously about “regionalism” in economic development.
Caldwell, who will chair the new organization, said a long drive to Wednesday’s announcement hasn’t deterred him or other companies committing funds to an effort that includes eight counties.
He said business leaders are taking the first step with the formation of NETNHub and inviting local government leaders to the table. He said the public sector was essential for the effort to succeed, but added that the business community was ready to move forward with a structure and funding that Caldwell said “does not replace anything” but is “additives”.
The two largest economic development organizations in the region are NETWORKS-Sullivan County and NETREP, which collectively provide economic development for Washington, Carter, and Unicoi counties.
“How can we add resources to this effort, without replacing existing organizations? Caldwell said. “How can we bring them together to make sure we’re working and trying to accomplish the same things? »
Nearly three years have passed since Governor Bill Lee told leaders at an ‘economic summit’ at the Millenium Center in Johnson City that the state’s economic development arm wants to see one voice come out of the region. with regard to projects involving the State. This summit came shortly after Washington and Sullivan County Mayors Joe Grandy and Richard Venable launched a “Blue Ribbon Task Force” to study regionalism.
“I think it would be beneficial to have a collaborative structure … in how you engage so that there are unified voices,” Lee said at the Sept. 10, 2019 summit. “Unified voices are much more powerful than 15 different voices from 15 different directions.”
With a temporary name, at this point NETNHub only has verbal monetary commitments, no CEO and no bylaws. It has not scheduled its first meeting or announced who is funding it and how much. Leaders told a virtual press conference on Wednesday that $750,000 in “first-year commitments” had already been secured, and executive committee treasurer Will Barrett said he was confident that would exceed $1 million.
A “launch CEO” will soon be named, as will private sector funders and budget information, a press release said.
“I think in the simplest terms, there were a lot of us in the private sector, major employer types in the region, private companies saying ‘we’re stronger together,'” Caldwell said. “We are strongest when we work together, whether competing at the state or national level, and how can we achieve that.”
NETNHub also will not have official authority to deal with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD) or other partners in job creation projects. It’s still up to the individual counties and their economic development agencies.
The leaders of the new hub have won over some partners in the public sector and local governments, but continue to struggle to gain the full support of others, including Bristol, Tenn.
The executives’ comments seemed to reflect the sometimes bumpy road to the present. Barrett, CEO of Bank of Tennessee, called Wednesday “a finish line and a starting point.” Mark Costa, member of the executive committee and CEO of Eastman Chemical, said that there was “much to be determined on the long-term structure and operations” of the hub, but added that “the board of directors is committed to his success”.
Bristol executives expressed some reservations about the hub in a Tuesday meeting with Barrett, particularly after learning that permanent executive committee seats were being offered to the towns of Kingsport and Johnson City and Sullivan and Washington counties, Bristol having the opportunity to be the first to occupy a fifth public sector seat at this table.
Wednesday’s statement mentions just five public sector seats with no specific nominations. He lists the hub’s long-term goals as follows:
- Develop a comprehensive regional strategy supported by a strong project portfolio and marketing plan;
- Coordinate funding requests and grant applications to raise additional resources for major projects in the region;
- Accelerate investments for regional economic development in order to improve the quality of life of residents;
- Attract business and industry to the region;
- Establish a regional dashboard to outline milestones and measure progress.
The challenges that have arisen so far have not dampened Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable’s enthusiasm for the hub. A key driver of the effort for several years, Venable could be one of five public sector representatives on its board.
“We have to change,” Venable said. “To succeed in this world, we have to market this region as a region and leverage the 520,000 people we have and the strength and power of those people.”
In addition to Caldwell, Barrett and Costa, appointed board members include Brian Noland, president of East Tennessee State University, and Alan Levine, CEO of Ballad Health. Barrett said “every county will have a voice in the hub” as additional advisory committees are planned.
Eastman’s Costa and Grandy both spoke about the importance of scale in today’s competition for talent and job creation in the region.
“There’s a talent war going on in this country, and we’re certainly caught up in this need to bring in more people for us, for Ballad, for all the businesses that are in this community,” Costa said. He said the opportunities for “falling behind spouses” when people are recruited for jobs at Eastman and other companies in the area are also significant.
“One of the biggest challenges we’ve had is the spouse or people wanting to know that they’re going to be in a community where their families can grow and get a good education, get a good meal, have a lot of attractions to enjoy a high quality of life,” Costa said. “I think it all happens with the region when you put it all together.”
Grandy has been involved in the effort from the start. He said whether it’s trying to recruit a manufacturing facility or convincing a company to locate its global headquarters here, “it’s important that we look at each other in a broader way.
“It parallels our market with the communities we compete with every day – Chattanooga, Knoxville, Greensboro, Richmond, several other communities. Size matters when you’re trying to attract talent here or trying to attract business here.
Grandy said a collaborative approach would also help keep visitors here longer, with more money coming into the area this way as well.
“They can spend an extra day or two and enjoy a lot of things, whether it’s our culture, our music, our recreational activities,” he said. “Looked collectively, they are as impressive as any place you can imagine.”
Venable told News Channel 11 he was confident all local governments and existing economic development organizations would be won over if they weren’t already.
“As we get the group together and we start, obviously the companies are saying ‘hey, we don’t mind being first, we don’t mind putting skin in the game, because it’s is what we are here for is to provide leadership for our governments and show them that we are serious about this and we will support them,” said Venable. “And then I think we’ll have the governments on board.”