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Growing pains in the regionalism rodeo

Johnson City Press • Aug 18, 2019 at 8:00 AM

Between the mass shootings, plane crashes, bats in schools, tax increases and other attention-grabbing headlines this month, some readers may have missed the fact Northeast Tennessee’s economic engine has been on full display.

Few days have gone by without an economic progress-related headline in development, industry, business, technology, health care or education. A few examples:

• Johnson City hot tub and spa maker Leisure Products International Inc. announced Friday its purchase of the former Cantech Industries building for an off-site warehouse, allowing it to dedicate more floor space in its existing plant to manufacturing. The company expects to hire 150-200 new workers in the next two years. There are 275 employees working at the plant now.

• Two new residential developments are planned in Johnson City — one with 105 residential structures in Gray and a second in Boones Creek with 94 single family lots. For the latter project, the City Commission approved annexation on first reading Aug. 1.

• Commissioners on Thursday approved a development agreement with AC Commercial Properties for four city-owned buildings in the 300 block of East Main Street. The developers plan to repurpose the former retail shopping structures for a combination of commercial and residential uses. A sale to the developers approved in May is expected to close within a month.

• Northeast State Community College is preparing grads for careers in the high-demand field of aviation technology at its facility in Gray.

• Elizabethton High School has a new virtual reality and augmented reality lab, the first in Tennessee, an advancement aiding students in a number of scientific disciplines — computer science, engineering, biology and more.

• State figures released July 31 show Johnson City’s metropolitan statistical area has a larger proportion of healthcare jobs than the state of Tennessee as a whole. At about 195,400 workers, healthcare practitioners — doctors, dentists, nurses and technical employees — make up 6.6% of all employees in the state. Here, that percentage is nearly double at 10.7%.

• Meanwhile, Ballad Health’s post-merger strategies continue to make the news — a new behavioral health division, consolidation of neonatal services and first-year fiscal results that include a 15.4 percent improvement in operating cash flow. The company spent $1.043 billion on salaries, wages and benefits for the year.

• Consultants recommended adding “Appalachian Highlands” brand to the Tri-Cities identity in industrial and business recruitment efforts as part of ongoing discussions toward regionalism — a coordinated regionwide economic development strategy.

But just how far will regionalism go? As News Editor Nathan Baker reported, the Johnson City Development Authority announced it would only renew its contract with the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership — a single point of contact for business development in Washington, Unicoi and Carter Counties — for one quarter, rather than a full year. The prospects of a merger between NeTREP and Sullivan County’s similar organization, NETWORKS, could lead the JCDA to become more independent.

NETWORKS CEO Clay Walker told Baker, however, that merger was not imminent. He said the two organizations already collaborate and frequently brainstorm “from the doable to the ridiculous notions.” Walker considered any talk “premature.”

Merger undoubtedly would require considerable thought. NeTREP and NETWORKS are structured differently and employ different strategies. The communities within the Tri-Cities still have individual boundaries and interests.

But if regionalism is truly to take hold, a more formal structure is inevitable — whether it be through a merger or a new entity with a sole focus on regional development. It’s not premature to have those discussions. Without firm direction and centralized organization, the latest regionalism effort easily could go the way of those in the past. This is not the Tri-Cities’ first regionalism rodeo.

These communities can retain their individual identities and goals, but to improve the economic prospects of their residents, they will have to work together — formally, structurally and wholeheartedly.

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