Light an economic fire in 2019

Johnson City Press • Dec 28, 2018 at 7:45 AM

If a University of Tennessee think tank’s projections for 2019 hold true, our local economic development leaders have an even tougher job ahead than we thought.

Alarm bells have been ringing about our prospects for economic growth as Northeast Tennessee’s cities lag well behind the major centers in Tennessee. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that Washington County’s population grew just 3.9 percent between 2010 and 2017 compared to 10.6 percent in Nashville-Davidson County. Even more telling is the comparison with Nashville’s suburban neighbor, Williamson County, which grew a whopping 23.5 percent.

The median household income here is just $44,180, less than half of Williamson County’s $103,543 and well behind Nashville-Davidson at $52,858. The cost of living here makes living in Johnson City more affordable, certainly, but clearly people have more incentive to live where better paying jobs.

Year over year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics reports that Carter County was the only Northeast Tennessee locale to see more than 1.6 percent job growth. Washington, Sullivan and Unicoi counties all realized between 0.1 percent and 1.6 percent.

Now, UT’s Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research projects that Tennessee’s economy will slow down in 2019. As Staff Writer Zach Vance reported in Sunday’s edition, the Boyd report cites fading effects of recent federal tax cuts, rising interest rates, increased government spending and uncertainty surrounding the tariff war as reasons to expect a slowdown.

While the Boyd Center’s Matt Murray told Vance his report should not be misconstrued as a “recessionary outlook,” he warned that growth will be weaker in areas outside the larger metros.

“I think it’s going to be a significant difference. There will be some exceptions to the point I’m about to make here, but generally, the further you go away from the core of the metropolitan areas of Tennessee, you’re going to find weaker growth,” Murray told Vance.

Murray’s report only confirms what local Chamber of Commerce Board Chairman Andy Dietrich, his counterparts in Kingsport and Bristol, Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine and others have cautioned about in recent months.

If there’s a bright side in all of this it’s that those leaders already were formulating a game plan to stabilize and improve Northeast Tennessee’s economic prospects. It will mean considerable changes in the way we educate young people, develop the workforce and recruit business and industry. No more dog eat dog between cities.

A concerted regional effort is the only way our communities have a fighting chance of bringing better jobs here, thereby keeping our children and grandchildren in the area. That’s why regionalism is important to your family.

The UT report is just more kindling to the fire.

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