A tea party, the great outdoors and a regional identity

Johnson City Press • May 13, 2018 at 8:30 AM

Nearly 245 years after the Boston Tea Party, another battle is brewing over tea on a national scale.

It’s about a certain mixed drink, and it involves two islands about 700 miles apart. Call it the Long Island Iced Tea Party.

Our neighbors in Kingsport laid claim last week to the birthplace of the potent concoction of vodka, rum, gin, tequila, triple sec, sour mix and cola. Visit Kingsport, the local tourism bureau, boasts that “Old Man Bishop” created the “original Long Island Iced Tea” on the Long Island of the Holston River in the 1920s with his son Ransom making revisions in the 1940s.

Not to be outdone, bartenders up north took umbrage at the notion that anywhere other than Long Island, New York, was the drink’s place of origin. Long Island bartenders have issued a challenge, and they’re ready to invade the South for a mix-off in Kingsport. Yes, the challenge actually referenced the Civil War.

It’s all in great fun, and the only weapons will be shakers, lemon slices and two instantly recognizable regional accents.

Of course, the whole brouhaha is not about tea at all. There is no tea in a Long Island Iced Tea, and this battle is about marketing.

Tourism brings big bucks to Northeast Tennessee, and those darn Yankees bit hook, line and sinker into Kingsport’s bid for national attention. CNN, ABC and other national media took the bait. You can’t buy advertising like that.

It’s good for Kingsport, and what’s good for Kingsport is good for the Tri-Cities.

Regionalism is a word you’ll hear more and more over the next few years. Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City no longer can afford to be squabbling siblings when it comes to tourism, marketing, economic development and business recruitment. They have to work more closely together to bring more diverse economic opportunities up this way. No more crabbing over who has what.

Tell someone in Middle Tennessee you live in Johnson City, and they’ll often ask one of two things: “Where is that?” or “Isn’t that near Bristol Motor Speedway?” The regional designation of Tri-Cities rarely gives them a clue.

It’s time to change that.

Recent efforts have marketed Johnson City as an outdoors hub in hopes of attracting more businesses like Overmountain Outdoors, Trek Bicycles and Fleet Feet to downtown. The state of Tennessee already is marketing the new Tannery Knobs Mountain Bike Park before it even opens.

The abundance of lakes, rivers, ridges and trails literally make for a natural marketing fit. It’s all right here, and not just around Johnson City. The whole region feasibly is an outdoors mecca. Throw in minor league baseball, the speedway, Fun Fest, Blue Plum, Little Chicago, Rhythm ‘n Roots and sports tournaments, and the Upstate becomes the recreation capital of Tennessee. That’s a hook that could land not just tourists but also companies who want a good way of life for employees.

The Tri-Cities area needs a common identity with a common purpose, and recreation could be that focus.

In the meantime, Johnson City, Bristol, Elizabethton and Erwin residents should get behind Kingsport’s battle and send those carpetbaggers slogging back up north with a big swig of Northeast Tennessee envy.

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