FTDD board approves regional economic development ‘hub’ in split vote

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GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – A public-private economic development partnership covering eight Northeast Tennessee counties took another step toward becoming reality Wednesday.

The full First Tennessee Development District (FTDD) board of directors approved housing a regional “hub” under FTDD’s foundation. The district has representation by mayors of counties, cities and towns from all eight FTDD counties.

The concept, while not always envisioned to be tied in with FTDD, has been promoted by some of the area’s largest employers and other private sector heavy hitters for more than two years.

Mark Fuller, a Boston-based consultant, has worked the region — funded primarily by Eastman Chemical Co. — promoting an alliance that would bring more private sector capital into marketing the region. Another stated aim has been to reduce counties’ and cities’ competing within the region in favor of a more collaborative approach.

The proposal passed 10-5. Among the yes votes was Kingsport Mayor Pat Shull, who said his initial skepticism had mostly been allayed by conversations with Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable and Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy.

“(They) invited me to participate by Zoom in a work group where we discussed proposed bylaws, proposed organization, so forth,” Shull said. “It’s a work in progress.” 

Shull said he decided the alternative — the status quo — isn’t acceptable anymore.

“The basic idea is that if we operate on a larger scale that we’re probably better able to attract more attention from our own state government, but (also) the outside world. Otherwise we’re operating like a bunch of separate lone rangers, which is hard to do in this environment.” 

Shull said he’d become convinced the private sector involvement won’t be as heavy handed as he said it was when regionalism was tried in the late 2000s. The Regional Alliance for Economic Development largely bypassed the public sector, Shull said.

“I very much appreciate the interest from the private sector leaders,” Shull said. “This won’t be like the Regional Alliance.  The private sector realized that this has to truly be a private public partnership.” 

He said the future of NETWORKS, Sullivan County’s current, all publicly funded economic development organization, is likely to become a serious topic of discussion now.

“In Sullivan County we would have to figure out how NETWORKS figures in this if at all,” Shull said.

“There’s a lot of moving parts to this that really have to be examined and ironed out.” 

Shull may have been satisfied voting yes with that many moving parts remaining, but Greeneville Mayor W.T. Daniels wasn’t.

“I’m not going to vote for anything if I don’t understand it,” Daniels said.

He said the hub’s proponents have been “reluctant to explain just the ins and outs.

“Who’s going to fund it? What do we have to look forward to? So I’ve got a problem with that.” 

Daniels said he’s opposed to any organization that could possible take away a community’s the autonomy. 

“I just think we need to know more, who’s involved, where’s the money coming from, and in my opinion that has not been explained,” he said.

Daniels said he’s open-minded and now that the ship has at least begun sailing, he’s looking forward to getting some of his questions answered. 

In the meantime, he expects Greeneville and Greene County to remain on a competitive footing with not just other parts of the state and nation, but with their neighbors.

“We’re going to compete for jobs and industry and that kind of thing, and I’ve always said when we create a business-like atmosphere to do business, we’ll get the business.” 

Daniels said in the end, some of the incentives that can help lure companies come directly from local county and city commissions — not regional entities with no ability to tax citizens. 

“If you don’t have the county commission and the city council on board with that, you’re going to struggle.” 

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