Editor’s Note: Census data show Northeast Tennessee’s population growing faster than it has in years since the COVID-19 pandemic changed migration patterns. Housing permits are being pulled at record levels. News Channel 11 is spending this year looking at the growth’s impact from every angle.
JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) — Growth is on the mind of every local government leader in the Tri-Cities, but even those new to the Tri-Cities can tell it is something that must be reckoned with.
News Channel 11 introduced the Tri-Cities to the Magnussons, who moved from the Minneapolis metro to Jonesborough in 2021 looking for a change.
Todd Magnusson’s job allowed him to work remotely anywhere in the country, but this area’s natural beauty and small-town feel were big reasons why they chose the Tri-Cities.
Despite being here for less than two years, Arielle Magnusson can tell those same points are driving others to the cities, towns and counties of Northeast Tennessee.
Magnusson said it will take a balanced approach from local governments to accommodate that growth while maintaining what makes the region unique – and familiar to so many Tri-Cities lifers.
“I think that there is a way to expand in a smart way to where a city can support it or the county can allot and have a way of supporting it,” Arielle Magnusson said.
Fred Gordon heads East Tennessee State University’s Masters in Public Administration program. He said cities and counties can strike a balance and maintain their area’s charm even when they experience surges in growth.
“I think its identity doesn’t have to change,” Gordon said. “Growth doesn’t necessarily mean just becoming something totally different.”
Avoiding easy pitfalls takes work, Gordon said.
“It comes down to good management and good leadership, people reaching out, people communicating, making sure that there’s an attractive allure, that it’s a good school system, recreation systems, transportation — all those factors come into play.”
The Magnussons were part of the initial wave of new workers and families moving to the Tri-Cities during and after the pandemic.
But after 2020 and 2021 showed the highest population growth by far in more than a decade, local governments are expecting more to come. The physical representation of that anticipation can be seen just outside any population center in the Tri-Cities as local governments green-light new housing developments.
That includes Kingsport – where Assistant City Manager Jessica Harmon said its city planners are setting records.
“Over 300 single family permits pulled, residential permits pulled for the year is something we’ve never seen,” Harmon said. “Our guys down in the building department have been busier than they’ve ever been.”
Kingsport is finding many of their new residents work those same remote jobs as Todd Magnusson. Harmon said those workers choose the Tri-Cities because of the amount and things to do and see, along with its natural beauty.
“There’s such a quality of life aspect here that isn’t necessarily in other areas,” Harmon said. “They can come here they can continue to do their work, but live a whole different life.”
But with more growth projected, Arielle Magnusson is concerned the Tri-Cities could become more like the metropolitan areas her family wanted to avoid.
“If we wanted to live in Knoxville or Asheville, we would’ve lived in Knoxville or Asheville,” Arielle Magnusson said. “We don’t want it to turn into that. We want it to be Johnson City.”
After falling in love with what the Tri-Cities was in 2021, Magnusson is worried rapid growth could bring too much change.
She said city planners must walk a careful line between the surging growth and the way things have been.
“There are some areas where I can see that there’s a lot of housing development in a small amount of area and that can be beneficial,” Magnusson said. “But it can also be a challenge when you had a beautiful view of the mountains and now all of a sudden your beautiful view is blocked by a whole, huge subdivision.”
Harmon said Kingsport is communicating with builders to make sure new housing fits in with what is already here.
“We’re very conscious of making sure that a development fits into a location, that it doesn’t come in and change the landscape of where they’re at,” Harmon said. “Our developers understand that. They don’t want to come in and be sorely out of place.”
While that may be true, Gordon said cities and counties must reach out to people who already live there and help them understand growth can be a win for everyone.
“They need to get across that everybody benefits rather than simply big developers [who] are coming in and usurping the local landscape for their own benefit,” he said.
If local governments handle growth the right way, Harmon said they could reap some big rewards in the long run.
“Change is difficult and sometimes it’s hard to accept,” Harmon said. “But I think growth that’s managed and managed properly over time is a win for everybody.”
It’s not rapid-fire, all-out growth that Kingsport is looking for either. Harmon said a careful approach is already being undertaken.
“I think as long as growth is orderly, it’s managed, we’re accounting for infrastructure — responsible growth is really what we’re looking at,” Harmon said.
But Gordon cautioned that the process needs to include “multiple stakeholders.”
“It can’t just be the commission or the people in the public administration capacity,” he said. “It has to be people who are residents … you need to have a lot of different types of community members engaged in that type of decision-making process.
“Otherwise you’re going to get pushback, you run the risk of alienation, and beyond that, you run into the issue of alleged concerns of not meeting needs of all the constituents or inhabitants in that area, and that builds resentment.”
Arielle Magnusson said city planners need to also consider affordability in their new developments.
She wants future generations like her daughter, Freya, to be able to afford to live in the Tri-Cities as well.
Johnson City’s vice mayor, Aaron Murphy, said affordability is a question on leaders’ minds as median home prices have risen. He said he believes the community, at least in Johnson City, has yet to fully work through that current challenge.
“We need to define affordable housing because what’s affordable to one person is not necessarily to someone else,” Murphy said. “And so we need to come together as a community and define that term and once we get a true definition, then we can start building in a direction of moving forward.”
Even as those questions are being addressed, though, growth continues to come. Murphy said going into battle without counting the cost sets one up for a losing battle.
“We’ve got to get ahead of the growth that’s taking place, and if we don’t have a plan then we’re not doing our community due service.”