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Washington County officials talk economic incentives

Robert Houk • Feb 22, 2019 at 8:27 PM

Consultants met with Washington County commissioners, Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock and other economic development players in Jonesborough on Friday to discuss where the county currently stands on economic growth and where it should be going.

The meeting also covered business incentives, such as tax-increment financing and payments in lieu of taxes.

It was those latter items County Commissioner Kent Harris said he wanted to talk about. At the beginning of the workshop, which was scheduled for two hours at the Washington County Courthouse, Harris said he had questions about the performance of several current PILOT projects.

Harris told his colleagues he had “heard all this before,” referring to an economic overview provided by the workshop’s moderators, and left the meeting early.

The workshop began with a presentation by Jon L. Smith, an East Tennessee State University associate professor of economics and director of the Bureau of Business and Economics Research, who discussed a “significant shift in the labor force” since the Great Recession. He said both East Tennessee and West Tennessee have seen an “enormous migration” of its population to Middle Tennessee.

Much of that relocation has been to the Nashville area, particularly since 2016. He said Middle Tennessee is “still the economic engine of the state.”

Meanwhile, Smith said economic growth in Northeast Tennessee “suffers” as the available labor force leaves the region. He said it has become a problem in both the Johnson City and Kingsport metropolitan statistical areas.

With younger and skilled workers leave the area, Smith said industries have found it increasingly difficult to hire the employees they need. One bright point for the region, Smith said, is that affordable housing costs are attracting people from areas like nearby Asheville, N.C.

Tom Trent, an attorney with a Nashville firm that handles a number of TIF and PILOT contracts, told local officials that economic-development deals are hammered out at a faster pace today, thanks largely to technology and competition. He said one of the top priorities a company looks for before relocating is the quality of a region’s workforce.

Trent said local governments have a role in workforce development through its public education and job training programs.

He also said “companies go to where they feel valued,” and that is where tax incentives come into play.

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