(WJHL)- A potential merger between two leading economic development organizations in the Tri-Cities region has reached a critical point. Officials from NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership and the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership (NeTREP) believe combining would allow them to take a more regional approach to marketing the area.

For years, economic leaders have suggested that selling the Tri-Cities as a region – rather than individual cities and counties – is crucial to attract new businesses, bring tourism, and grow the population.

NETWORKS serves to bring jobs and growth to Sullivan and Hawkins County. Meanwhile, NeTREP does the same for Washington, Carter, and Unicoi counties. Leaders from both groups have been in talks about merging for a couple years. This could include forming a new public-private organization to combine both NeTREP and NETWORKS, or establish a more formal partnership between the two.

NETWORKS CEO Clay Walker said it would easier to market the region as a whole – rather than just by counties and cities.

“It would just be a lot smoother and less cumbersome of a conversation, if when anybody asks me, ‘Do you represent the Tri-Cities?’ I can say ‘yes I do,'” Walker said.

NeTREP board member Jeff Dykes agreed.

“Because when we’re out there talking to other areas of the country, we want to have a united front. The best way to do that is to merge these two groups together and present that united front,” Dykes said.

By combining the population of each of the Tri-Cities, leaders say the collective workforce can better compete with larger cities when trying to bring in new business.

“When you put our CSA numbers out there, then they’re in line with Huntsville, Chattanooga, and those types of communities,” said Walker. “But if you just say how big is Kingsport, how big is Johnson City, how big is Bristol? Individually they’re not close.”

Now amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be critical to to market the Tri-Cities as a collective.

“With the situation in the world, there are a lot of people on the move, a lot of people are transitioning. And we should be promoting our area as the best place for them to move,” said Dykes.

In the next month or so, NeTrep and NETWORKS leaders hope to have a memorandum of understanding written that would outline a merger.

“We’ve talked this thing out quite a bit. We have to be coming to a conclusion sometime soon, or it just tends to wither,” said Walker.

NeTREP CEO Mitch Miller said next, the groups would present this proposal to their private sector investors and local governing bodies.

“I think we can really outline the benefits together,” said Miller. “It’s going to first take us making that step to say, ‘we believe this is the right step forward,’ and then really presenting that to each of our governmental partners, and then our private sector folks that really could be key contributors around this table.”

If the discussion at Monday’s Kingsport BMA work session was any indication, governing officials still have plenty of questions about the merger. Kingsport Vice Mayor and Sullivan County Commissioner Colette George said NETWORKS has served Kingsport and Sullivan County well for years. She questioned how a new merger would benefit taxpayers.

“I cannot vote for something without more data explaining to me, does this benefit the people I represent?” she told News Channel 11 on Tuesday.

George said she also wondered if the Tri-Cities or Appalachian Highlands name would be used when marketing the region under the new merger.

“They couldn’t tell me last night what name they’re going to market under,” George said. “At some point, that makes a lot of difference in the buy-in for Sullivan County.”

On Tuesday, Dykes suggested deciding on a marketing name was still “way down the road.”

“I think the key thing right now is getting the MOU in place, and then sitting down and bringing the two groups together,” said Dykes.