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Finding a strong identity for regionalism

Robert Houk • Jan 14, 2019 at 6:42 PM

As board chairman of the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce in 2018, Andy Dietrich and his counterparts in Kingsport and Bristol preached the power of regionalism to all who would listen.

And even though they are no longer in those roles, Dietrich said he and his chamber colleagues — Jerry Caldwell in Bristol and Bob Feathers in Kingsport — are still spreading that message.

“Let’s look outside the boundaries,” Dietrich, vice president and co-owner of Champion Chevrolet-Cadillac in Johnson City, told a meeting of the East Tennessee Republican Club at the Carnegie Hotel on Monday. “We are not trying to tear down individual identities, but if we all work together, we’ll have a bigger voice as a region.”

Dietrich, whose tenure as Johnson City’s board chairman ended earlier this month, said a he will meet monthly with Caldwell and Feathers to continue the three chambers’ work on regionalsim. By “pooling the area’s resources,” the Kingsport native said the region can go after the “big fish” in terms of economic development.

“The three of us will still lead the regionalism meetings and report back to our respective chambers,” Dietrich said.

He said the area’s chambers have gladly taken the lead on regionalism since they represent “more than 3,000 businesses.” He said many of the area’s largest employers — including Eastman Chemical Co. and Ballad Health — know how important it is to grow the region’s workforce.

Dietrich said the area’s demographics sees the population getting older, while incomes have become stagnant. He said the region has also had to deal with a longheld misconception “of some people in Nashville” that Tennessee ends in Knoxville.

He said the chambers have looked at ways for the region to better brand itself. That means coming up with an identity that can connect the entire Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia region.

“We’ve got to have a name that we can stand behind and be proud on,” Dietrich said.

In November, area chamber leaders decided to give “Appalachian Highlands” a try. He said that brandname piggybacks on a host of entities — both public and private — that already use Appalachian in their names. He said the task now is to sell the region’s “assets to the outside world.”

Dietrich said building economic progress and business opportunities are not only important for attracting people to this region, but also for keeping the next generation employed and living here. He hopes his regionalism efforts will create the kind of place his own children — who are now ages 9 and 12 — will want to live in and work in when they graduate college.

The three chambers are also looking to cast a wider net with their regionalism work in the next six months. He said his committee will ask more surrounding cites and counties to take a seat at the table. 

“We’ll have some stumbling blocks, but what we are doing is in the best interest of the people in this room and across the region,” Dietrich said Monday.

 

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