Industrial parks cited as keys to area's growth

Tony Casey • Jul 30, 2014 at 1:22 PM

The tools for widespread economic development are here and Northeast Tennessee is the verge of that boom, all the area needs is a little push.

“We’re at that tipping point,” said Johnson City Commissioner Jenny Brock, who spoke of some of the highlights that have occurred and continue to occur through the area.

At the Washington County Economic Development Committee luncheon Tuesday at the Millennium Centre, a panel from across the state discussed with local leaders and business people exactly how to get that push, and there seemed to be a consensus. Allen Borden, who serves as assistant commissioner of business development for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, mediated a panel that discussed industrial park development, which was the crux of the event.

“You have a tremendous room for growth,” he told the room of over 100 people. “But you’ve got to have industrial land or buildings and that’s what we’re here to talk about it.”

While not specifically mentioning any areas or projects specifically, Borden and the members of the panel, consisting of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Brad Maul and Jason Brake, Kendrick Curtis and Philip Trauernicht from Borden’s department, as well as Hollingsworth Companies’ Rick Meredith, ran down all the ways that success has been achieved across the state, many in projects they’ve been involved in and explained, in a general sense, how these plans could be put into play in region.

Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge pointed out that to get to that point of development, local government and, especially, those in the private sector, would need to be on the same page for this development. He gave a nod to the WCEDC and said that its inception was key in putting the region in the position it is right now.

“We are seeing the results of it,” Eldridge said about the progress made of the efforts of the WCEDC and its supporters.

Not being as well joined as it could be, Eldridge and Borden said the region isn’t getting its fair share of economic development dollars in comparison with what it could be, asking that neighboring municipalities come together for the common goal of attracting new businesses, which, in turn brings in better jobs. With the development and preparation of land that developers would see fit to bring in jobs, Meredith said the area would need to make a decision on how they want to pursue such goals.

“Is it a shotgun approach or a rifle?,” he rhetorically asked.

He went on to say his point was whether the goal was to bring in $9-10-an-hour jobs, like those at Wal-Mart or Target, or if they want to try to hit a home run for higher-skilled jobs that pay two to three times the amount of retail jobs through an emphasis on skill development and education.

Site preparation of potential industrial parks is key, he and the panel said, making sure areas were well mapped out and updated with the necessary water, sewer and electric amenities, among other things.

The panel suggested building on what they called one of the area’s strongest assets, the workforce, through education. Borden said this doesn’t just come through an emphasis on a four-year degree, but a development of skills through two-year degrees from school’s like Northeast State Community College.

East Tennessee State University’s President Brian Noland made a presentation of football helmets with the new athletic logo to each member of the panel, saying just how important it has been for the university and the city to recently partner on athletic events that will bring ETSU basketball to the city-owned and subsidized Freedom Hall Civic Center.

Awards were presented to some in attendance who have exemplified the goals of the WCEDC to build on the area’s development, including Dr. Dan Schumaier, who serves as the chairman of the Tweetsie Trail task force, which is nearing completion of the recreational trail. The Tweetsie Trail, Schumaier said, shows exactly what can happen when communities come together — in this case Elizabethton and Johnson City — to collaborate and make a product that can be used to bring in potential businesses and job creators.

WCEDC CEO Mitch Miller said the group’s annual report will be out in the upcoming weeks.

Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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