ETSU initiative created to boost Unicoi Co. economy

Brad Hicks • Nov 9, 2012 at 10:01 PM

ERWIN — Patricia “Tish” Oldham has been on the job in Unicoi County for about three weeks and has already hit the ground running, initiating efforts that officials hope will bolster economic development here.

The Johnson City native was recently named director of Community Outreach and Economic Development with East Tennessee State University’s Center for Community Outreach and Applied Research. Oldham will support the university’s initiative to develop partnerships with the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County and Unicoi County’s business community. The goal is to expand and attract small businesses to the county, encourage entrepreneurship, facilitate downtown Erwin revitalization, capitalize on tourism opportunities and support strategic planning for economic expansion.

“We have to make sure we set up the foundation for economic development, making sure that we know where all the land resources are, making sure that everything’s available so that we can have information available, and also understanding what the main interests are in the community, what the community wants to do,” Oldham said Friday as she was introduced to Joint Economic Development Board members.

Oldham said she had spent time in downtown Erwin, going door-to-door to meet with merchants there. She also had made contacts with state officials to let them know that she is here and that the university will be working with Unicoi County. She also had been in contact with ETSU officials to learn how the county could partner with them and see how resources available at the university tie in with local projects. Next week, Oldham will pay a visit to the town of Unicoi to get more acclimated there.

This summer, Dr. Robert G. Leger, assistant vice president of ETSU’s Community Outreach program, gave a presentation before the Unicoi County Economic Development Board regarding a partnership between the board and the university in which a full-time director of Community Outreach and Economic Development would be brought in to help the county aid local economic development. This proposal was accepted by the board.

Leger said Friday that ETSU’s Center for Community Outreach always has maintained an interest in rural economic development. He said a similar partnership the university had with Johnson County a little more than a decade ago proved to be successful, leading the university to look at replicating that model in Unicoi County.

“Of course, Unicoi County has many advantages over Johnson County,” Leger said. “You’ve got the interstate highway, an extensive rail system, and we had some extra funding, so we decided to partner with the board.”

Oldham’s position will be funded by ETSU for the first three years. After that point, the university will reassess where the county is with hopes the county will take over funding once that period is up. Development Board Chairman Larry Rea said the board hopes to secure private and grant funding to continue the position.

Like Leger, Oldham said she sees much potential in Unicoi County. She said it is important to attract businesses and to help those interested in starting endeavors in the county by providing access to university resources. She also said it is important to retain and expand existing businesses within the county.

“This is the most difficult economy we’ve had since the depression,” Oldham said. “We want to pull together and see what we can do to achieve some synergy. Having a synergistic approach is the most important thing you can do.”

Oldham, who holds a master’s degree in planing and economic development from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, previously worked in the Washington, D.C., office of Congressman James H. Quillen, has served with Knoxville’s Department of Community Development, with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as a town planner for Jonesborough, as the economic development coordinator in Bristol, Va., and most recently as a city planner for Bristol, Tenn. She was also appointed to serve two terms as a commissioner on the Johnson City Municipal-Regional Planning Commission and the city’s Historic Zoning Commission, having served as chairwoman for both.

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