BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership could become the hub for state-initiated economic development projects across eight Northeast Tennessee counties based on a proposal by its CEO discussed at NETWORKS’ Wednesday meeting.
“The leads from the state (Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development) would all come through NETWORKS,” CEO Clay Walker said of his plan. It’s modeled on a contract NETWORKS has with Hawkins County to provide similar services for its industrial development board.
“We would be the point of contact for TN ECD. We would handle the lead.”
The proposal marked a pivot from possible discussion about a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between NETWORKS and the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership (NeTREP). Walker had helped draft that MOU, which envisions a regional hub for economic development marketing efforts and several other economic growth-related functions.
NeTREP provides economic development services for Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties. It has also branched out into non-traditional economic development efforts in recent years, including talent attraction and marketing the area’s outdoor assets.
Walker’s plan envisions NeTREP retaining what the plan describes as “a priority on outdoor event creation and promotion and population growth” and extending that beyond its three counties. NETWORKS expansion would involve handling “traditional economic development: marketing and recruitment and retention and expansion in primary job industry sectors.”
NETWORKS board members discussed Walker’s plan in detail, passing on a chance to approve the MOU drafted by Walker, NeTREP CEO Mitch Miller, and consultant Mark Fuller.
The drafting of that MOU was rooted in a joint NETWORKS-NeTREP resolution last September to explore further opportunities “for greater collaboration between the Parties for the benefit of all the communities they represent.”
NeTREP’s board approved that MOU Sept. 20 and had hoped NETWORKS’ board would consider it Wednesday.
Instead, opinions about the MOU — which would commit signers to seeking an operating agreement for a new hub by June 30, 2021 — ranged from negative to neutral to positive. Negative to neutral appeared to win the day, though, and a majority of members seemed to rally behind Walker’s new proposal.
“Our document is our response to the NeTREP document, but the motion would need to be amended to specifically state that we are voting on the NETWORKS document,” Lea Powers, a Bristol city council member and board member, said during discussion. “Our mission today should be to deal with our business.”
NETWORKS chair Bill Sumner was less critical of the MOU, but also clearly supported what he called a different “first step to where we get together.”
“To me this is a proposal in response to a very positive MOU,” Sumner said. “We’ve given back a very positive markup to the MOU.”
But board member Jerry Caldwell — who has helped lead a committee effort to get NETWORKS into a more regional approach — said he was concerned about the shift.
Discussions around regionalism — now well into their third year — have stressed the importance of private sector involvement, for one thing. NETWORKS is completely public sector-funded, while NeTREP has paying members from the private sector who have voting seats on its board.
Walker said under his plan NETWORKS would need to request some funding from new counties that cede their economic development marketing to it, at least initially.
“As I think I’ve heard you say, and others — as well as I believe — the way we get truly effective long term is somehow bringing that private-public together,” Caldwell said.
“What specifically are we turning to them and asking them to invest in?” Caldwell asked. “How will their resources be used?”
Walker said NETWORKS would work to get NeTREP on board, then sit down with their private investors “to say ‘here’s our vision going forward, what would you like to see in it, and get their feedback to say ‘what will it take on this to get your investment.'”
Caldwell seemed to suggest that NETWORKS’ refusal to consider an MOU the NeTREP board had approved and Walker himself had helped craft, then heading to them with a proposal they haven’t yet seen might be a tough sell.
“I think you send the wrong message if you don’t respond (in some way to the MOU),” Caldwell said. “I mean we’ve been working on the MOU now for months, we’ve seen this document for 48 hours.
“I think somehow we need to make sure that the two are working together.”
CeeGee McCord, Eastman Chemical Co.’s director of global public and community affairs, concurred. Eastman has been a major funding source for Fuller’s work, which has been ongoing for more than a year now.
“A big part of building trust is communication, so I do worry about if we don’t discuss this a little bit more with our regional partners that it will not go over very well,” McCord said. “It does need to be aligned I think with the work that has gone on over the past couple years.”
Powers asked Caldwell whether he thought the new plan was reflective of working together.
Caldwell said he believed it needed to be incorporated into the MOU, but he also said any fresh document could be taken the wrong way. Particularly, he said, because of what he described as difficulty getting some NETWORKS board members to provide their opinions about the MOU despite ample time to do so.
“Because we’ve struggled to get some to respond to the MOU, some on our board to provide feedback, I think it’s important that we make sure the two are handled together.
“If we’re truly trying to do this as a collaborative effort and saying ‘let’s all work together,’ let’s just make sure we’re keeping that in mind.”
For her part, Powers said previous proposals had had a top down element to them, and she thought Walker’s plan was a good example of what regionalism should look like.
“I think we’re lined up very nicely to just take our team, to take all of these surrounding counties with us as one tremendous region, and I think this is regionalism at its best,” Powers said.
A motion to approve Walker’s plan was seconded, but tabled after Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable said it would be preferable to bring the new plan before the full county commission.
Sullivan County Commissioner Mark Vance agreed. He said the new plan was a “working document” and that other county commissions would need to be well informed about just what they were buying into — and what it would cost them.
“You’ve got to figure out all your players at the table and you’ve got to sell it to the players,” Vance said. “This is the advantage of us coming together as a region. This is what’s going to be offered. This is what’s going to be the cost of putting this region together on economic development.”
To be the most effective ultimately will require private sector investment, Vance added. But he said getting to a point of mutual trust sufficient for all the stakeholders to invest money and time — and give up some autonomy — is a process that still has a long way to go.
“Doing things together, is it going to be more beneficial? Probably so, because you have the private partners wanting to help build this region, to increase its population. But in the same token you’ve got people that are going to be protective of their territory.”