Economic development consultants to public, private-sector leaders: You’re better together if you can get past the hurdles

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Regional leaders met Thursday to discuss steps toward a more unified economic development approach, which a survey revealed they support.

BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – The message Thursday to regional leaders from high-powered consultant Mark Fuller wasn’t terribly different than the one he delivered at a September 2019 economic summit in Johnson City. Circumstances certainly were.

“You haven’t always taken advantage of this region’s opportunities, and I think now’s a really excellent time to change that,” Fuller told a joint meeting of NETWORKS Sullivan County and the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership hosted by NETWORKS.

Fuller, a Harvard-trained business consultant and the chairman of Rosc Global, has spent more than a year meeting with leaders from Northeast Tennessee’s public and private sectors as they grapple with the road to a more regionally unified approach to economic development.

I think there are any number of opportunities for better health, better education, better jobs, more growth … you are mapping out the country of your children’s future.

Mark Fuller, ROSC Global

Thursday, he and another consultant, Jody Lentz, offered further observations about the region. They also took leaders from governments and organizations that have long waged pitched battles over jobs and growth through a collective strategy session long on visions but short on specifics.

Mark Fuller speaks at last September’s economic summit. (Earl Neikirk photo courtesy The Business Journal of Tri-Cities TN/VA)

In addition to economic development leaders, local mayors and city managers were also in attendance. For more than a year, all of them have been discussing greater collaboration in economic development, up to the potential for a NETWORKS-NETREP merger and mergers of Chambers of Commerce.

Fuller called it a “great day for honest exchange.” Lentz said surveys had shown leaders from various governments and agencies often lack trust in each other, and that increasing trust and getting folks to check their egos are crucial steps to successful regionalism.

Fuller said while he’s heard some of those negative qualities are cultural, he added that he believes the region’s culture actually contains the seeds of economic flourishing.

“I’ve heard a lot about the negative aspects of the culture in this region – that there can be a lack of trust, that there can be too much Friday night lights unproductive rivalry,” Fuller said.

“I am a firm believer that the culture and values of this region are the greatest asset this region and has and that this process of co-creation has to be one that preserves and protects and honors the best of the past and heritage even while embracing the opportunity.”

Getting past the starting line

Lentz said the region’s leaders essentially need to top two primary hurdles. One involves personalities, manifesting itself in lack of trust, egos being more prominent than they otherwise might be and other negatives.

One outcome he saw in a survey of people from the area, Lentz said, was “this idea that there’s lip service to regionalism, that we kind of say, ‘yeah, we’re all about that’ but then on the other hand don’t support it in our actions.”

Another source of friction involves the roles of the public and private sectors. Lentz said a good regional organization will weight toward the private side, one reason he calls for a “private-public organization” instead of vice versa.

“Often I get accused for having those private and public in the wrong order, a lot of times we hear it called a public-private partnership. In my experience the public sector is always gonna be there, regardless, but bringing in the private side is really where you get the power out of that.”

Getting past those kinds of hurdles takes time, Lentz said — something leaders may not have a lot of as the region risks falling further behind in terms of wealth, job growth and population growth.

That makes short-term challenges more important. He said those center around specific mission and clarity about things such as governance, budget and the like. “A lot of those things right now are just ether,” he said.

Those are issues that can and must be hammered out for an organization to get started. Sometimes improvements in trust and willingness to worry less about who gets credit don’t come until later.

“A lack of scope and purpose leads to unspoken expectations, and because they’re unspoken they’re unmet,” Lentz said.

While he didn’t offer specific advice, Lentz pointed to the survey showing 84 percent of respondents favoring regionalism and 74 percent in favor of a private-public approach. With the recognition that change is needed, he said, leaders would do well to try and settle on a relatively narrow focus for any combined organization.

“The more you can specialize and identify a couple of things to work on, that’s really going to help you gel this organization, gel this approach in a way that’s going to be best for everybody,” Lentz said.

Fuller said he believed now is the time to take action and that doing so has the potential to pay great dividends — particularly for the children and grandchildren of those around the table.

“I think there are any number of opportunities for better health, better education, better jobs, more jobs, more growth and not least, you are designing, you are mapping out the country of your children’s future.”

Positive reaction from a cross-border player

Jeff Dykes is CEO of Brightridge and serves on both NETWORKS’ and NETREP’s boards. He’ll be chair of NETREP starting July 1 and said he was encouraged by Thursday’s meeting.

“I think you have the right folks sitting around very interested in regional development and growth,” Dykes said.

Whether that will lead to a merger of NETWORKS and NETREP into a private-public partnership, Dykes wasn’t sure but he agreed now is an opportune time for change. NETREP is a private-public partnership, but NETWORKS is funded solely by the public sector.

“What that structure might look like is the next steps, and looking to set up some committees to study that,” Dykes said. “Let’s look now at what this might look like and what it should look like.”

He said the COVID-19 response regionally has provided some template for moving forward as folks have worked across governmental and organizational lines to a greater degree.

“There’s great opportunities for this region to set itself ahead of other regions by cooperating and working together, and just looking at some of the impacts of economic development working together we will really be able to stand out.”

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