JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — A new regional economic development “hub” is forming with private-sector financial support, the group’s leaders announced in a news conference Wednesday.

“We have something really special here, and we need to make sure that we protect jobs and protect the livelihood of folks that live in this region, and that’s what this is about,” the new organization’s board chairman, Bristol Motor Speedway (BMS) President Jerry Caldwell, told News Channel 11 in a one-on-one interview before the announcement.

Temporarily called NETNHub and relying on private donations only right now, the organization will include both private sector, “social sector” and local government representatives on its executive committee. Its formation comes about three years after local business and government leaders began talking in earnest about “regionalism” in economic development.

NETNHub Board Chairman Jerry Caldwell speaks to News Channel 11 about the new economic development hub.

Caldwell, who will chair the new organization, said a long road to Wednesday’s announcement didn’t deter him or other businesses who are committing funds to an effort that includes eight counties.

He said business community leaders are taking the first step with NETNHub’s formation and inviting local government leaders to the table. He said the public sector is critical for the effort to get anywhere but added that the business community was ready to move forward with a structure and funding that Caldwell said “is not replacing anything” but is “additive.”

The two largest economic development organizations in the region are NETWORKS-Sullivan County and NETREP, which collectively provides economic development for Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties.

“How do we add resources to this effort, not replace existing organizations?” Caldwell said. “How do we bring them together to make sure we’re working and trying to accomplish the same things?”

Nearly three years have passed since Gov. Bill Lee told leaders at an “Economic Summit” at Johnson City’s Millenium Centre that the state’s economic development arm wanted to see one voice coming out of the region when it came to state-involved projects. That summit came shortly after Washington and Sullivan county mayors Joe Grandy and Richard Venable began a “blue-ribbon task force” to study regionalism.

“I think it would be beneficial to have a collaborative structure … in the way that you engage so that there’s unified voices,” Lee said at the Sept. 10, 2019 summit. “Unified voices are much more powerful than 15 different voices coming from 15 different directions.”

Along with a temporary name, at this point, NETNHub has only verbal monetary commitments, no CEO and no bylaws. It hasn’t set its first meeting or announced who all is funding it and at what amounts. Leaders said in a virtual news conference Wednesday that $750,000 in “year one commitments” had been secured already, and the executive committee’s treasurer Will Barrett said he was confident that would rise above $1 million.

A “launch CEO” will be named soon as would private sector funders and budget information, a news release stated.

“I think in the simplest of terms, there were many of us in the private sector, of kind of major employers in the area, private businesses that say ‘we’re stronger together,'” Caldwell said. “We are stronger when we work together, whether that be competing on a state level or national level, and how do we go about accomplishing that.”

NETNHub also won’t have the official authority to deal with Tennessee’s Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD) or other partners in job-creation projects. That still rests with individual counties and their economic development bodies.

The new hub’s leaders have won over some public-sector and local government partners but continue to struggle to gain the full support of others, including Bristol, Tenn.

Leaders’ comments seemed to reflect the sometimes bumpy road to the present. Barrett, Bank of Tennessee CEO, called Wednesday “a finish line and a starting point.” Executive committee member Mark Costa, Eastman Chemical’s CEO, said there remains “much to determine about the structure and long-term operations” of the hub, but added, “the board is committed to its success.”

Bristol’s leaders expressed some reservations about the hub at a Tuesday meeting with Barrett, especially after learning that permanent executive committee seats were being offered to the cities of Kingsport and Johnson City and to Sullivan and Washington counties, with Bristol given the option of being the first to hold a fifth public-sector seat at that table.

Wednesday’s release just mentions five public-sector seats without specific appointments. It lists the hub’s long-term goals as:

  • Developing a comprehensive regional strategy supported by a robust project portfolio and marketing plan;
  • Coordinating funding requests and grant applications to garner additional resources for major projects across the region;
  • Accelerating investments for regional economic development to enhance the quality of life for residents;
  • Attract business and industry to the area;
  • Establishing a regional scorecard to outline key milestones and measure progress.

The challenges that have occurred so far didn’t dampen Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable’s enthusiasm about the hub. A key driver of the effort for the past several years, Venable could be one of five public-sector representatives on its executive board.

“We must change,” Venable said. “To be successful in this world, we must market this region as a region and take advantage of the 520,000 people that we have and the strength and the power of those people.”

In addition to Caldwell, Barrett and Costa, named executive board members include East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland and Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine. Barrett said “every county will have a voice in the hub,” as additional advisory committees are planned.

Eastman’s Costa and Grandy both spoke of how important scale is in the current competition for talent and bringing jobs to the area.

“There’s a talent war in this country, and we’re certainly caught in that need to bring more people for us, for Ballad, for all the businesses that are in this community,” Costa said. He said opportunities for “trailing spouses” when people are recruited to jobs at Eastman and other area companies are also important.

“One of the biggest challenges we’ve had is the trailing spouse or people wanting to know they’re going to be in a community where their families can grow up and get a good education, get a good meal, have a lot of attractions to enjoy a high quality of life,” Costa said. “I think all of this happens with the region when you bring all that together.”

Grandy has been involved in the effort from the beginning. He said whether trying to recruit a manufacturing facility or convince a company to bring its world headquarters here, “it’s important that we look at ourself in a bigger way.

“This puts our market on parallel with communities that we compete with every single day – Chattanooga, Knoxville, Greensboro, Richmond, multiple other communities. Size matters when you’re trying to entice talent here or you’re trying to entice business here.”

Grandy said a collaborative approach would also help with keeping visitors here longer, with more money entering the region that way as well.

“They can spend an extra day or two and enjoy many things whether it’s our culture, whether it’s our music, whether it’s our recreational activities,” he said. “Looked at collectively they are as impressive as just about any place you can imagine.”

Venable told News Channel 11 he was confident any local governments and existing economic development organizations would be won over if they aren’t already.

“As we bring the group together and start, obviously businesses they’re saying ‘hey, we don’t mind being in first, we don’t mind putting skin in the game, because that’s what we’re here for is to provide leadership for our governments and show them that we’re serious about this and we’ll back them,’” Venable said. “And then I think we’ll have governments come on board.”