Census is key to regional prosperity

Johnson City Press • Oct 18, 2019 at 7:00 AM

What should be the first major tangible task for the newly dubbed “Appalachian Highlands” regionalism campaign presents itself in the form of the 2020 U.S. Census.

Since the ultimate goal of the regionalism effort is to ensure prosperity for the region’s inhabitants, it stands to reason an accurate count of households and people would be necessary.

Census numbers and the accompanying demographics matter in governmental representation, state and federal funding, grants, business and industrial recruitment and more. This region’s prosperity hinges to no small degree on such resources.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced on Wednesday the appointment of a 38-member statewide committee tasked with raising public awareness about the 2020 Census and encourage participation. Among his appointees is former Johnson City Mayor David Tomita, who served as the Northeast Tennessee finance chairman for Lee’s gubernatorial campaign last year. Tomita accurately described the reason for the effort to Staff Writer David Floyd when he said “every response is money.”

Having Tomita in the governor’s mix for the Tennessee campaign is undoubtedly a major asset, but leaders in the regionalism initiative should go beyond the committee’s work by drilling down on participation in our upper eight counties, as well as the adjacent counties in Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

It’s a must for Appalachian Highlands residents to understand the personal importance of filling out their forms and answering their doors when census-takers knock.

The 2020 Census results will be background for much of what the regionalism hopes to accomplish in workforce development, infrastructure, recruitment and quality of life.

We already know some of the hurdles in the mix via the Census Bureau’s 2018 estimates. Washington County’s population had grown 4.5% since the 2010 Census compared to Tennessee’s overall growth at 6.7% and the nation’s at 6%. The population in neighboring Unicoi County fell by 3%. Johnson County fell by 2.5%. Carter County fell by 1.8%.

Meanwhile, counties in the greater Nashville metropolitan area grew at incredible rates. Davidson County alone grew by 10.5%, and neighboring Wilson County ticked up by a whopping 23.3%.

Why does growth matter? Essentially it means the better-paying jobs are steadily landing elsewhere. If such migration continues, the economy in regions like ours may not just stagnate, they could collapse. It’s prosper or die, folks.

Regionalism is not just the latest shiny object in local leaders’ eyes. These counties and municipalities must work together to foster that prosperity. Clearly, we have a problem in Northeast Tennessee — a people drain, a culture drain, a brain drain and a job drain.

To go where we need to go, we need to know where we stand. To take advantage of what’s available, we must have accurate demographics and proper representation. A regional census task force is in order. Counting every living human in the Appalachian Highlands may not be feasible, but a concerted, organized effort will be indispensable.

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