Think you know where the Tri-Cities are? Maybe not

David Floyd • Updated May 15, 2019 at 11:26 AM

A quick search on Wikipedia reveals six cities called “Johnson City” in the U.S.

There are also more than a dozen places in the U.S. and Canada that have cities in close enough proximity to be designated the “Tri-Cities” or “Tri-City.”

“If you tell people you’re from Northeast Tennessee, they automatically think you’re from Knoxville,” said Andy Dietrich, the former chair of the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce and an outspoken supporter of regionalism. “We have to let people know that there’s a lot more past Knoxville.”

There’s a Tri-Cities in Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Washington and Ontario.

About a dozen local governments and economic development organizations, including Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol, Washington County and Sullivan County, have recently teamed up to come up with a new name for the region that includes East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

“When you think of successful regional branding, you think of the Low Country in South Carolina,” said Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock. “It’s very similar to that.”

Local leaders hope the branding effort will create a unified identity that stimulates interest in the region. Tourism currently has a $257.5 million impact on the Washington County economy, but local leaders said recent trends make it difficult to draw investment to the area.

“In the grand scheme of things we’re working against a lot of headwinds that make it hard to attract the kind of attention to visitors and investment that are critically necessary,” said Johnson City Vice Mayor Joe Wise. Two of those headwinds are a gradual decrease in the region’s population and an increase in the median age. “Parts of our region see more people dying in them than being born in them,” Wise said, “and that’s obviously not a trend that’s sustainable.”

Wise said Johnson City is also in a separate metropolitan statistical area than Kingsport and Bristol, which means the region doesn’t look as prosperous as it could when businesses are looking for a place to expand. “All of the other demographic measures that somebody might be looking at are getting diluted,” Wise said, “so all of this is an effort ... to take every opportunity we have to position ourselves for success.”

Dietrich doesn’t anticipate that the new name will fix all of the area’s issues.

“It’s just one of the steps in the process to create a new regional entity, a new regional brand that we can sell to the outside world.” That, he hopes, will attract people and companies to the area. “We just need growth,” he said. “We need to turn this ship around — it’s stagnant — and move it in a prosperous, forward and up position.”

In April, Johnson City commissioners approved a $48,000 expansion of an existing contract with North Star Destination Strategies to come up with recommendations for a new name for the region. Brock said North Star, which previously received a contract to rebrand Johnson City, will ultimately answer to a committee made up of representatives from economic development groups, tourism organizations and local governments.

“They’re the conduit to North Star,” she said. “They’re helping expedite a lot of the research that North Star committed to do for us.” Brock hopes officials will decide a name by the end of June.

Alicia Phelps, the executive director of the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association, said there have been efforts in the past to create a unified regional identity, but Phelps believes this effort is unique because of the number of organizations involved.

“I don’t recall them being so collective (with) all these different communities and sectors coming together as one,” Phelps said.

Officials want to come up with a name that is “distinct and ownable,” Wise said. He said this is part of an effort differentiate the Tri-Cities from other parts of the U.S. rather than do away with the name “Tri-Cities” altogether.

Dietrich said he doesn’t anticipate the name “Tri-Cities” will ever go away, but noted it’s important for the region to come up with a name that captures a broader area. “As a regional brand ... that defines such a larger scope of people and elected officials and cities and counties, we have to find something that identifies as all of us,” he said.