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Can't we all just get along? Economic experts push for regionalism

Nathan Baker • Jul 14, 2018 at 11:43 PM

As local economies and markets shift, grow and refocus after the Great Recession, business leaders in the area are collectively concerned with one core concept — regionalism.

Two years ago, hoping to give them more clout with legislators and industry leaders, the economic development organizations in Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties joined together under one banner, the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership.

Their goal, economic development officials said, was to unify the three locales with shared interests and economic activity and stop them from detrimentally competing against each other for jobs and funding opportunities.

So far, from the group’s work that has been announced to the public, the cooperation seems to have produced some opportunities.

Next month, the first Meet the Mountains Festival will combine the marketing forces of all three counties to promote their outdoor recreation potential, a top priority for the partnership’s members.

Last week, U.K.-based kayak maker Pyranha announced plans to relocate its North American distribution center to Erwin, to the applause of regionalists.

The NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership, in Sullivan County, also works closely with the Hawkins County Industrial Development Board, promoting and recruiting for the latter’s Phipps Bend Industrial Park. That park has seen several successes over the past few years.

Recently, John Speropulos, President of Mitch Cox Realtor Inc., sparked discussions about recombining the Tri-Cities into a single metropolitan statistical area in two blogs on his website.

Split up almost 20 years ago by the U.S. Census Bureau into two areas, one anchored by Kingsport and Bristol, the other by Johnson City, Speropulos argues that stitching them back together would be in the shared interest of the region, because we all already share so much.

One example those advocating regionalism usually point to is the Tri-Cities Airport.

Decades ago, Sullivan and Washington counties and Kingsport, Johnson City and both Bristols formed the Airport Authority to jointly share the responsibility of operating the region’s largest commercial airport.

The operation has been successful, and last year, the board approved funding and work to establish a 160-acre aerospace park at the airport, seeking to bring new industries and jobs to the area.

Airport Authority Chair Jon Smith said the park is proof positive of regional cooperation.

“I think the airport is far and away the best example of what can be accomplished when civic leaders and economic developers work closely together,” he said. “It helps us to maximize the limited resources that we all have.”

Over the next couple of weeks, the Johnson City Press will explore the concept of regionalism and the potential it has for Northeast Tennessee. Look for those in-depth stories in future editions of the newspaper and on our website.

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