Coordinating a region: Economic development officials look to streamline efforts

Nathan Baker • Jul 22, 2018 at 12:13 AM

A recent trend toward coordinated economic development efforts among Northeast Tennessee’s and Southwest Virginia’s business organizations will likely continue, experts say, as officials realize the strength in numbers.

Mitch Miller oversaw the creation of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership two years ago. He’s now the nonprofit’s CEO.

The organization serves as a single point of contact for companies considering conducting business in Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties. Public officials and business representatives pay for seats on its governing board of directors to guide its activities and initiatives.

So far, the partnership’s staff have produced some positive results. Two recent announcements will bring jobs and industry to Unicoi County, and its program to market the region’s outdoor recreation opportunities will bring the Meet the Mountains Festival to the area next month.

Miller said the group’s work is driven by communication among the governments in the tri-county area and between the private business representatives and public officials.

“I am truly excited to see this movement,” he said. “With this public-private approach, the sectors are communicating with each other and looking at how they’re going to plan together.

“It’s a start, but it’s got to be bigger. We can take it to the next level.”

The broader plan, he said, is to have business owners and officials from the entire region, from Greeneville to Abingdon, sit down at the same table to map out a plan for our economic future.

Clay Walker, CEO of NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership, the official economic development organization representing Sullivan County, Kingsport and Bristol, said he’s a big proponent of cooperation across borders — and his staff routinely does meet and speak with their counterparts in neighboring counties — but the structure and functions of NETWORKS prevent it from joining up with Miller’s NeTREP.

“One of the things that bugs me is people seem to start from the jumping off point assuming that we don’t already have regionalism going on,” Walker said. “Regionalism is in the structure that already happens today, and we like to pride ourselves in the leadership role we have taken in those positions.”

Walker said he regularly phones leaders at the Greene County Partnership, that county’s economic development organization, to talk about pressing regional issues. An even better example, he said, is the NETWORKS red carpet business recruitment event each year during the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The organization invites industry representatives for a tour of the region and calls on other economic development groups, from as far away as Knoxville, to take part. Last year, after several years of animosity between the groups over the event, NeTREP joined in the recruitment efforts.

But, even though part of their missions are similar, Walker said NETWORKS and NeTREP are two different groups.

NETWORKS chooses to focus its efforts on recruiting industrial businesses and shies away from retail and service industry activity, while NeTREP dabbles in both.

NETWORKS also isn’t pay-to-play.

The organization gets its funding from the municipalities in its territory. There are representatives from some of the major employers in the area on its board, but membership is not open for a fee, like NeTREP’s board.

Walker said the latter structure is too similar to a Chamber of Commerce organization, and he wouldn’t want to infringe on the activities or draw funding from any of Sullivan County’s other business groups.

But NETWORKS and NeTREP can still coordinate on some projects, he said.

“Just because we don’t want to participate in one particular thing, it doesn’t mean we’re completely out,” he said. “We are always looking for opportunities, and it makes sense that we would have a leadership role in marketing this region.

“It might be time to bring in other folks and have them along for the ride to take us to a whole new level.”

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