The Washington County/Johnson City/Jonesborough Chamber of Commerce has certainly been busy in the last year.
In 2022 alone, the chamber added 113 new members, hosted 46 ribbon cuttings and launched a young professionals program that saw more than 230 people join in its first year. Chamber CEO Bob Cantler said the business organization entered 2022 with three main goals: improve communications, find ways to retain and attract 21- to 39-year-olds to the region and grow membership and services offered to members.
“I think physically transforming from our old building to our new building kind of helped us, as an organization, transform,” said Cantler, referring to the chamber’s move into the Model Mill in 2022. “We’re not our granddad’s chamber. It’s a new day, it’s a new world and we’re trying to figure out how to meet that role.”
Cantler said the growth the region has been experiencing, particularly in Washington County, is both “exciting and anxious,” and cautioned that he’s hoping to see healthy growth. That means working with local government and business leaders to ensure the right decisions are being made, and that the region isn’t trying to “grow just to grow.”
“We don’t want to lose our core values, we don’t want to lose our vibe, we don’t want to bring on the challenges of fast growth (like) congestion and traffic and some of those issues you may have, and you’ve seen in other communities that grew too fast,” Cantler said.
Cantler said this is a unique time for East Tennessee, particularly with so many remote workers moving to the area. Since 2020, the number of remote workers in the region has tripled, Cantler said. That’s no doubt thanks in part to the city’s remote workers program, which offers financial and other incentives for people looking to relocate to the area to work remotely.
But what can the Chamber of Commerce do to impact “healthy growth?”
“We’re a connector,” Cantler said. “We try to bring different people to the table.”
Cantler said the region needs to recruit 726 people each year just to remain flat in its population, and said he’d like to see the region grow around 1% per year — equal to about 1,200-1,300 people per year or 13,000 in a decade.
“We’re hopefully going to outpace where we’ve grown in the past, but still not at a level that throws the balance off our school system,” Cantler said.
In 2023, Cantler said he’s excited about continuing programs such as the Young Professionals of Johnson City, launching a new website dedicated to giving people information about moving to the area, creating a better toolkit for businesses and building stronger relationships with community partners.
“We hope to be a positive example for what’s happening in East Tennessee, and we’ll continue to work regionally with our partners,” he said.
Jonathan Roberts is a reporter and photographer for the Johnson City Press covering Health Care, Johnson City and Jonesborough. He is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and has been with the Press since 2019.