'Tri-Cities' name is out: Johnson City leaders approve contract for new regional identity

Zach Vance • Updated Apr 4, 2019 at 10:47 PM

Having this region be known as the “Tri-Cities” is just not cutting it anymore, and regional leaders believe a new name is needed for the collective Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia region.

After all, as Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock said during Thursday’s City Commission meeting, the region is bigger than three cities. It includes all the counties, Southwest Virginia, Bristol, Virginia, and even some of Western North Carolina.

With support from regional public and private partners, Johnson City commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to execute a $48,000 contract with Nashville-based North Star Destination Strategies to come up with recommendations for a new name.

North Star is the same company Johnson City contracted in November 2017 for $98,500 to come up with a new city logo brand. The contract approved Thursday for the regional name is an addendum to the original agreement.

While Johnson City will front the funding for the contract, Brock said between eight and 10 regional partners will reimburse the city.

“For each of the entities, from the three cities to all the counties to the (Convention and Visitors Bureaus) to economic development folks who will be contributing to this, we all have a vested interest. We all have skin in the game,” the mayor said.

In proclaiming the need for a new regional brand, Vice Mayor Joe Wise made the succinct argument of “we’re in sales.”

“The thing we need to recognize is whether we’re the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau attempting to attract visitors to come here and spend a weekend; or whether we’re economic development trying to recruit business and industry to locate their operations here; (or) whether we’re the Med Center, Eastman or the university attempting to recruit professionals from all over the country, we’re in sales. We’re in sales,” Wise said.

“We need to tell a story that’s appealing to people who are not already vested in our community. So it matters that we think like they think and understand what they understand and speak to what speaks to them.

“There is a reason successful companies spend a considerable amount of money on their marketing and their communications efforts. It’s because names matter. Perception matters.”

In addressing the $48,000 cost of the contract, calculated using a $175 hourly rate, Wise agreed it was a lot of money but argued that $48,000 is small compared to the total money spent regionally by public and private entities on marketing and communication.

“We spend a considerable amount of money sending conflicting messages about our region. We say, ‘We’re the Tri-Cities.’ You know what that tells people? You’ve got three cities and none of them are significant enough to remember,” Wise said.

“We need to create a dynamic where the economies of the Tri-Cities are put together so when we go out and we tell a story, we’re not telling the story about a 65,000-person community in Johnson City. We’re telling the story of a million people across two metropolitan statistical areas that represent growth and opportunity and a worthy target worth your investment.”

Once Wise concluded his remarks, Commissioner John Hunter quipped, “It’s a shame these mics aren’t able to be dropped.”

The contract with North Star calls for eight weeks of interviewing stakeholders, auditing existing marketing efforts and studying the region’s history and goals. In the final two weeks of the contract, North Star will recommend a name brand for the region and make a “Research, Strategy and Naming” presentation.

An optional $5,000 consumer survey would also be offered by North Star, something Commissioner Larry Calhoun called a “critical piece.”

“I think it is really a critical piece of this so that we know how everybody feels. Right now, we have anecdotal information about, ‘I like the name we’re using (or) I don’t like the name we’re using,’ But, we don’t want this to derail the more important aspect, which is the regionalism effort,” Calhoun said.

Other notes from Thursday’s meeting:

• Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl predicted Tannery Knobs Bike Park will be open within 30 days as paperwork to transfer the property is completed and signage is installed.
• A ribbon-cutting for BrightRidge’s new solar farm will take place May 7.
• Brock said the Washington County/Johnson City Animal Shelter has reduced its dog population to just 100 and its cat population to just 40. In a couple of months, commissioners will consider a mandatory spay-and-neuter ordinance.
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