Carter County has long benefitted from regionalism

John Thompson • Jul 21, 2018 at 11:53 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Industry has a two-century tradition in Carter County, going back to the old iron mills like the O’Brien Furnace that produced pig and bar iron.

Regional cooperation has also had a long tradition, playing a role in developing the county’s natural resources.

Even one of the county’s most beloved icons, the Tweetsie locomotives of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad, are reminders of how places as far apart as Johnson City and Boone, N.C., were tied together in a late 19th-century economic endeavor to extract iron ore from the Cranberry Mine.

Even the most iconic symbol of Carter County industry, the Bemberg rayon plant came about as a result of regional cooperation.

Johnson City leaders and the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce played a key role in encouraging German investors to locate the plant next to the Watauga River in nearby Carter County.

For the next three generations, Elizabethton laborers who wished to work in the textile industry could easily find work in the county. That would change as rayon manufacturing followed other industries in using cheaper sources of labor in other parts of the world.

For decades after the decline of rayon, the Carter County workforce was able to find local employment in industry in smaller factories in aluminum extrusion, plastics, clothing manufacturing and other textile-related work. But more and more of those jobs were lost and local politicians made more and more promises to bring industry back to Carter County.

But as the decades continued to pass, more leaders became aware that it would take a regional cooperative effort to most effectively encourage economic development.

Near the turn of the millennium, the state introduced Public Chapter 1101, which required various governmental bodies of a county to work together to develop countywide growth plans.

Since a small portion of Johnson City is in Carter County, PC 1101 had the effect of causing representatives of Carter County, Elizabethton and Johnson City to come together to make long-range plans and make long-range agreements, at least on matters affecting Carter County.

But this cooperation did not last. Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey said county economic development boards began to include Johnson City representatives for a short time, but old patterns began to return and Carter County economic development organizations left out Johnson City.

That was one of the arguments Humphrey used to promote a new joint community economic development board two years ago.

He said Johnson City was not participating in the joint board known as Carter County Tomorrow. He promoted a new joint community economic development board that did include Johnson City. That organization is now the county’s official joint community board, with representatives of Carter County, Elizabethton, the town of Watauga and Johnson City..

Humphrey said he felt the spirit of regional cooperation when he was first elected mayor in 2010. He said he began talking with newly elected Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge about working together for economic development.

That spirit and more is embodied in the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, which includes Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties.

Humphrey said NeTREP provides expertise and people dedicated to economic and community development that a small county like Carter could not afford to have with its own resources.

Chris Hitechew, president of the Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce, sees both sides of the argument on regionalism.

“I know there has been a lot of discussion on taking a regional approach to economic development. These efforts are seen as smarter with better cooperation and collaboration,” Hitechew said.

Hitechew has also heard the counter-arguments to a regional approach. “Some fear the regionalization of efforts will result in a loss of identity for smaller communities such as ours. Past efforts have not been as successful as desired for various reasons.”

Humphrey said the regional cooperation proved successful recently in the decision made by an established manufacturer in Elizabeethton, A.Y. McDonald, a manufacturer of water works, plumbing pumps and natural gas products, to invest $8 million in an expansion of its plant in the Watauga Industrial Park. The plans for the expansion were announced July 2.

Hitechew said “I think the efforts of Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership and others are beginning the discussion, looking for a different approach than we have taken before. Division within our county has hurt the local efforts at economic development. We have a lot to offer in our region, diversity in the educational opportunities, the talent and resources. I look forward to seeing Elizabethton and Carter County involved in the discussions and decisions.”

Humphrey said he believes there could be an even bigger payoff to regional cooperation if it could be expanded.

“I would like to see Sullivan County included in a regional effort,” he said.

He said an effort has to be made to brand the region to emphasize its uniqueness and value.

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