Proposed regional economic development hub raises more questions than answers for mayors

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- Efforts continue to unify different counties and cities in Northeast Tennessee under a broad umbrella organization to spur economic growth.

But as local mayors assembled for a special-called meeting Wednesday, their discussion indicated forming this organization can be a complicated and confusing process.

Leaders are calling the proposed organization a ‘regional economic development hub.’ The hub would help market the area as a region, rather than individual counties and cities.

Mayors said using a ‘strength in numbers’ approach means promoting a population of approximately 500,000 people. This could lead to more businesses deciding to locate in Northeast Tennessee, along with boosting tourism, population, and more.

The role the First Tennessee Development District would play in the proposed development hub was unclear to some of its Executive Committee members who met Wednesday.

FTDD Executive Committee members gathered Wednesday

The FTDD is comprised of local government leaders who work to advance economic and community development. The proposed hub has similar aims, but would have private sector funding and business leaders included on its board.

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy and Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable are leading the push to form the hub.

“Today’s motion was just to reccomend to the full [FTDD] board that they endorse a relationship. And that what we’re doing with the hub is good and beneficial to Northeast Tennessee,” Venable told News Channel 11.

During the meeting, Venable stressed the new hub would have no financial or legal ties to the FTDD.

Greeneville Mayor W.T. Daniels then questioned why they were meeting.

“I mean if it’s not part of the development district… what are we doing… why are we even talking about this?” asked Daniels.

Also expressing concerns were Bristol, Tennessee Mayor Mahlon Luttrell and Elizabethton Mayor Curt Alexander.

“I cannot support anything at this point. I need to have information to take back to our council. In addition, this was not an agenda item any of us could prepare for,” said Luttrell.

The only agenda item printed on documents for the special-called meeting was “Consideration of the Role of FTDD in Regional Economic Development Hub.”

No other documents detailing the motion to be voted on, or the hub itself, were provided. Venable told News Channel 11 the organization’s proposed bylaws were still being finalized by an attorney and weren’t available for review yet.

Venable said the motion was to recommend the full FTDD board endorse a working relationship with the new hub. The motion eventually passed 9 to 4.

“Regardless of how this comes out, we see a role for us in working with this regional hub, as well as NETREP, Networks, we work with them on a weekly basis. We appreciate being mentioned in this conversation, we certainly do,” said FTDD Executive Director Chris Craig.

Several leaders at the meeting continued to voice beliefs that marketing the region as a whole will help attract more businesses, tourism, and growth.

“We have advantages that the outside world wants,” said Kingsport Mayor Pat Shull. “They just don’t know they want it from us because they don’t know enough about us. But we need a professional organization who can get the attention of the world.”

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