BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — Leaders of the Northeast Tennessee Hub aren’t giving up on broader regionalism despite a largely symbolic rejection by Sullivan County leaders last month.

The Hub’s chairman, Bristol Motor Speedway General Manager Jerry Caldwell, said its leaders were having some fruitful discussions with the NETWORKS-Sullivan County board early this year. Then the Sullivan County Commission voted almost unanimously Feb. 16 for a resolution that “denies any  inclusionary steps within any regionalism framework or any related naming that inserts Sullivan County as a member.”

The move came almost simultaneously with the final absorption of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership into the Hub. NETREP, like the Hub a private-public entity, helps lead economic development for Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties.

“Sullivan County … their elected officials can make their decisions and we’ll respect that,” Caldwell told News Channel 11 Tuesday. “Disappointed? Yes.”

He said commissioners voted before the Hub had even provided a formal plan for any specific relationship with NETWORKS, which is publicly funded by local governments in Sullivan County and Kingsport.

“We had tried to remain very respectful and continue to remain very respectful,” Caldwell said in reference to skepticism and doubts some area leaders have expressed since the Hub became an official entity 11 months ago. The strongest opposition has generally come from elected officials in Sullivan County and Bristol.

Northeast Tennessee HUB Board Chairman Jerry Caldwell. (WJHL photo)

Caldwell said he has a message for doubters: the Hub doesn’t want to take over.

“The role the hub wants to play, is ‘how do we facilitate the scale of this region?’ Not asking anyone to give up their identity or the great things that they bring to the table. Actually, we’re asking them to keep their identity, but let’s just bring those all together and remember that we’re all one.”

The Hub’s primary founders, and funders, include Eastman Chemical Co., BMS, Ballad Health, Bank of Tennessee and East Tennessee State University. The group, now being joined by some of the companies that have helped fund NETREP, is putting significant resources into an effort that Caldwell said is critical if Northeast Tennessee is going to thrive economically.

“It was a testament from the private sector to say we’re gonna put our money where our mouth is, we’re gonna continue to say ‘we need to work together’ but we’re gonna put resources to it,” Caldwell said.

“There’s about a million dollars there a year for the next few years backing that up to say ‘yes, we’re on board with this.’”

Governor: Make it one megaphone

Caldwell said Hub leaders will remain open to a partnership with NETWORKS and any Sullivan County governments — and that all indications tell them there’s little to lose and everything to gain from more regionalism in a region with only half a million people to begin with.

The private companies that have funded the Hub so far “know that we have to be efficient, we have to operate at scale,” he said.

“We’re going to be better whenever we can have a conversation, whether it’s with the state, with a federal representative or with a site selector when we can speak with one voice instead of expecting someone to come to the area and try to identify four or five or six or whatever the number is, different individuals they need to speak to to find out the right spot for them.”

Caldwell likened the region’s traditional approach to approaching the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, site selectors for companies, TVA and other big players in economic growth with 15 or 20 different megaphones.

“We’re gonna make a bigger impact if we have one big huge megaphone, and we shout the same message out,” Caldwell said.

That doesn’t mean communities don’t need to continue to tell their stories, he said. But Gov. Bill Lee’s stance on regionalism hasn’t changed since he told leaders during a 2019 visit to the area that they needed to pursue greater regionalism.

“We have heard loud and clear from the governor on down at the Tennessee level that we need to find scale. We need to find that one voice and speak together.”

Bringing in NETREP — hoping for more

Former NETREP CEO Mitch Miller became the Hub’s Chief Operations Officer on March 1, and his colleague Michelle Black also joined the Hub team. The public entities that helped fund NETREP are still deciding how and if they’ll share dollars with the Hub, but Caldwell said the private funders are generally coming on board.

Caldwell seemed confident and comfortable the Hub was tracking toward good collaboration post-NETREP with Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties, as well as Johnson City and the other cities. And he said however it looks, a major public-sector role is critical if the Hub is going to be more successful than the Regional Alliance for Economic Development, an early 21st-century effort with similar goals that eventually disbanded.

The Regional Alliance never could get full public-sector support.

“Success for us looks like a structure where that partnership works really well together,” Caldwell said. “Where the desires and goals of the private sector and the public sector align and that we’re pulling in the same direction. That’s what this is all about.”

He expects the move toward alignment to be “a long path,” but he encouraged doubters within local governments to seek more information.

“Reach out to members of the Hub would be my message to the elected officials, and have a conversation and understand what’s really been said and what’s really been proposed and talked about,” Caldwell said.

“What’s really been proposed and talked about is an opportunity to find common ground. That was the conversation we had with NETREP, we were able to find common ground. Same conversation we’ve had with NETWORKS and others in the region… maybe that’s in baby steps.”

He said local identities aren’t going by the wayside.

“We can allow folks to really embrace their strengths and how they fit into this bigger puzzle, but just remembering that it is a bigger puzzle, this is about the region as a whole, I think we can find success working together.”