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NeTREP highlights local economic strides, delivers update on regionalism

David Floyd • Nov 2, 2019 at 10:43 AM

Having traveled from York, Pennsylvania, to take his son on a tour of Milligan College, Michael Brenneman didn’t expect a trip to the Tannery Knobs Mountain Bike Park on Friday would involve him being the surprise guest speaker at a luncheon about the regional economy.

Clad in a helmet and holding a pair of bike gloves in his hand, Brenneman was invited to the microphone to talk about his impression of Johnson City and the park, which he praised.

“I know our relationship with Johnson City is 24 to 30 hours old, but we’re looking around here like, ‘This is incredible,’” he said.

Local government and economic leaders touted regional progress during an investor meeting Friday at the top of Tannery Knobs, a city facility born out of a public-private partnership that officially opened this year.

For a number of reasons, including its proximity to a major interstate and the view it offers of the surrounding landscape, Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock told attendees that Tannery Knobs is unique. She said biking is one of the amenities the region can leverage.

“My goal has always been that if we do it right, and there are so many other neat biking locations in the region ... that we can become that biking mecca of the South,” she told attendees.

Local trail systems, including the Tweetsie Trail, the Erwin Linear Trail and those on Bays Mountain, also contribute to the area’s built environment, she said. The city currently has a consultant conducting a feasibility study on the possibility of putting a new trail system at Buffalo Mountain Park.

“We can’t give someone a quality of life,” she said. “That’s for them to make. But, we can give them a quality of place — that we have the environment for them to live in that they can just have an incredible, incredible experience going from one different amenity to the next.”

Strong numbers

According to the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, the Johnson City Metropolitan Statistical Area has seen a $569.5 million increase in its gross domestic product since 2016, and $5.1 million worth of community and industrial grants committed to local projects.

Since 2016, the number of people employed in the Johnson City Metropolitan Statistical Area has increased by 4,918, and $227 million in wages have been added to the MSA, with $35.8 million of that figure represented in Carter County, $7 million in Unicoi County and $184 million in Washington County. The unemployment rate has also dropped from 5.3% in 2016 to 3.6% in 2019.

Mitch Miller, the partnership’s CEO, said success in job creation and community development stems from the strength of local partnerships. As one example, he pointed to the long-term development of the Washington County Industrial Park, a project that netted tangible results in May when ebm-papst, a manufacturer of electric motors and fans, announced it would invest $37 million in a new location in Johnson City and bring 200 new jobs to the region.

Working together

Although the organization’s annual report show strong results, Will Barrett, the chair of NeTREP, told attendees that the region needs to do a better job of working together to move the needle on the local economy. NeTREP’s impact, he said, is limited by its resources and scope.

“I really challenge all of you guys to think bigger and what the next steps could look like for this region as we work together and come together,” he said.

About two months ago, NeTREP and NETWORKS-Sullivan Partnership released a statement committing to regional cooperation on economic development, a commitment that Barrett said could involve merging the organizations.

“If you want different results, you’ve got to take a different approach and you’ve got to change the game,” he said.

He said the organizations are looking at outside models as inspiration for partnerships that have crossed county and state lines and involved public and private entities. They are in the process of gathering feedback.

“What we want to do is translate all of that into a comprehensive plan that we’ll hopefully announce sometime in the future,” he said. “I’m optimistic and like I said at this point we have more questions than answers, but hopefully by the first quarter of next year we’ll have more details to share.”

Barrett said he’s heard a recurring themes in his conversations with economic stakeholders, which has included the need for a larger-scale regional hub organization. The idea behind the organization would be to coordinate local efforts rather than serving as an umbrella organization that oversees everything, he said.

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