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New chamber president hopes to create healthy ecosystem for growth

David Floyd • Updated May 19, 2019 at 10:56 AM

When Bob Cantler graduated from East Tennessee State University in 1985, he did what many people who have spent their entire life in their hometown do: He left.

"There weren't opportunities here," Cantler remembers. "Career opportunities were very limited in the '80s for someone to stay in this area."

Things changed as he got a little older.

After spending about 16 years working for companies in Memphis, Atlanta and Nashville, Cantler returned to the area in 2001, first working as the director of sales and marketing at Meadowview Marriot Resort and Conference Center in Kingsport and then as the vice president and general manager of the Morgan Inn Corporation in Greeneville.

Cantler wants to see other people who have moved away from the region follow this example.

"I want my kids to stay in this community if they want to, as well as others," Cantler said. "But I'd also love to see people who grew up here maybe move back."

On May 15, Cantler added another line to his resume: President and CEO of the Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce. Cantler will succeed longtime head Gary Mabrey, who led the organization for 31 years.

"I think in the past decade what's been really exciting is Johnson City has really found its stride," Cantler said, pointing to the recent spate of capital projects going on at ETSU, BrightRidge's roll out of 10-gigabit internet in the region and the recent growth of Johnson City's downtown.

Although he would like to see a boost in the region's rate of population growth, Cantler doesn't want to see Johnson City growing to the size of Atlanta or Nashville.

"Johnson City has its own vibe, and part of our charm is our size," he said. "We need growth, but we don't want to have exponential growth. You'll lose your identity, so we need to be smart in how that works."

He wants to see the region get to 2% population growth annually, which he said should translate to a 2% growth in GDP.

"That's what helps our tax base," Cantler said. "Growth cures a lot of ills, and if you have that, it allows us as a community to do some things that maintains our quality of life and enhances our quality of life."

In a presentation on the state of the city earlier this month, Mayor Jenny Brock said Johnson City is currently experiencing less than 1.5% growth.

Cantler believes the role of the Chamber is to create a fertile environment in which businesses and private individuals can succeed.

“If you want to move here, we want you to have access to whatever services (you need) to start your business or freelance or whatever you do,” he said. “We create the ecosystem.”

Not a 'power couple'

Cantler has been married to his wife, Dianna Cantler, for about 30 years. He attended Science Hill High School, and Dianna attended Daniel Boone High School.

Today, Dianna is the downtown development director for Johnson City Development Authority, and starting on July 1, Bob will be the new president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce.

The pair now both hold visible positions involved in the continued development of the community, but Bob Cantler said he cringes when he hears the two of them referred to as a "power couple."

"Her focus is in the downtown, my focus is the 130,000 residents in Washington County," he said. "Sometimes they'll overlap. A lot of times we're doing different priorities."

Dianna also doesn't the see the two of them as a power couple and said the pair maintains an intentional boundary between their work life and home life.

"We're like any other married couple," she said. "We're there to support each other, and we have a common goal to create a community where people will want to live, work and play. But we're also our own individual people, and we will continue to be that."

Raised in Johnson City

Freedom Hall had just been built when Bob Cantler was a kid growing up in Johnson City in the 1970s. A venue that today draws well-known figures like Elton John and the president of the United States, Cantler remembers when it attracted bands like Boston and Kansas during his childhood.

"If there was a concert in the '70s or early '80s that toured the United States, it came to Freedom Hall," Cantler said.

Johnson City still felt like a small community in the 1970s, Cantler said. "You went to church with the president of the bank and the president of the university, so you got to know people in the community."

When he got to college, Cantler joined a 12-member choral group called the Jazz Singers. He had a music performance scholarship, which he said is what kept him in the area, and remembers the group singing a lot of Doobie Brothers songs.

"Music and performing are part of my background, part of my experience, part of my DNA," Cantler said. "My father did tell me, 'Go get a business degree.'"

He ended up getting a degree in business administration, and now in his 50s, Cantler said he doesn't have any regrets. "I have the best of both worlds right now," he said. "I can still do the music when I want to do the music, but I still have the business opportunities and I can do something that can impact my community."

Next steps

When he officially starts his duties at the chamber, Cantler said he'll be building on the strong foundation laid by his predecessor, Gary Mabrey.

"My role is, one, don't screw it up, and two, if we can grow, let's identify how we can grow and do it," he said.

Cantler said the first 90 days of his tenure will be a "listening tour." He'll be gathering input from community stakeholders to learn what their objectives and challenges are, and by the beginning of 2020, he wants the chamber to sit down and come up with a series of strategic objectives.

"I'd like those to be bold and bullish," he said. "We're going to take what's been positive and worked well and keep it, but we're not going to do everything as we've always done it. We're going to try some new things."

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated where Dianna Cantler attended high school.

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