Two of the region’s largest economic development organizations are evaluating different visions for how to proceed with fostering a regional economy.
“We thought we had something collectively and collaboratively that we worked on that was a good next step that had some timelines attached to it,” Mitch Miller, CEO of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, said Thursday. “It was a plan we’d been working on for two months ... and then a new plan got introduced yesterday that we hadn’t even seen.”
On Wednesday, NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership presented members of its board with a proposal that would put NETWORKS in the role of managing key functions of traditional economic development — marketing and recruiting in primary industry sectors — for the eight counties in Northeast Tennessee.
The plan is modeled after the contract for services NETWORKS has with the Hawkins County Industrial Development Board.
In the proposal, Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership is encouraged to present a “parallel proposal” that addresses strategies and activities to promote outdoor events and programs and to spur population growth.
This, partnership officials said, doesn’t align with a memorandum of understanding drafted earlier by NETWORKS CEO Clay Walker, Miller and economic development consultant Rosc Global that focused on collaborating on the establishment of a regional hub organization that would conduct various tasks, including traditional economic development.
On Thursday, NeTREP leaders said the board, which as a nonprofit organization doesn’t have to hold open meetings, voted to reaffirm its commitment to creating a hub organization, which NeTREP said is the best way to advance regionalism, job growth and community development in collaboration with stakeholders.
“The NeTREP board also remained hopeful that NETWORKS will continue the dialogue to advocate for a regional hub for economic development,” the organization said in a press release.
In September 2019, NETWORKS and NeTREP agreed to explore increased collaboration between the two organizations, and Miller said those conversations have intensified over the last two months, resulting in the memorandum of understanding, or MOU.
On Sept. 17 of this year, Miller said the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership board approved the memorandum, which would involve pursuing a formal relationship between the organizations and determining what a new organizational structure could look like. Miller said NETWORKS did not take up that memorandum during its meeting on Wednesday.
Miller said the memorandum focused on six core areas of work. Traditional economic development is one of those six areas.
“The important part of all of it is creating a hub, and it’s having that one-stop shop to focus on all core activities that brings us together,” he said. “Completely handing over one phase of everything and not creating a hub is not conducive to successful results.”
Walker said the NETWORKS board has not indicated that they don’t want to end up in a hub organization. Instead, the consensus has been there might be a better way to proceed.
Before “tearing everything up,” Walker said NETWORKS has preferred operating under an agreement so that both organizations remain intact, but begin dividing duties and evaluating whether other counties want to sign on.
“Let’s not predetermine the outcome,” he said.
Walker said the proposal is part of an effort to vet all possible avenues, and the plan is intended to play to the organizations’ strengths while ensuring an equal breakdown in responsibilities.
“This is negotiations, this is collaborating, which is sometimes differences of opinion, that we’re trying to get ironed out,” he said.
The Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership and NETWORKS both help recruit and retain employers to the region. NETWORKS is a public organization that represents Sullivan County, Hawkins County, Bluff City, Kingsport and Bristol, Tennessee, and NeTREP is a public-private partnership representing Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties.
Partnership Chairman Jeff Dykes said this difference in opinion doesn’t derail the push toward regionalism.
“This was only a side section of that larger regional hub concept,” Dykes said. “There’s so much more involved in true regionalism that I think this discussion between two economic development entities was a side discussion that was part of that larger picture.”