Proposal would create private-public partnership spanning up to eight counties

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Apparent lack of clarity over whether a meeting would be virtual or in person delayed a vote Wednesday on a long-discussed private-public regional economic development “hub.”

Members of the First Tennessee Development District (FTDD) executive committee discussed a proposal to establish the hub — which could supplant the region’s two largest current economic development organizations — using FTDD’s foundation as a launching pad.

FTDD operates numerous programs, many linked to federal and state programs and funds, in Northeast Tennessee’s eight counties. County and city members comprise its leadership.

The hub idea met with some skepticism and some questions, just as talks about a regional effort have during similar discussions spanning two years. Bristol, Tenn. Mayor Mahlon Luttrell had the most questions Wednesday, including about not-yet-completed bylaws.

The proposal’s main proponents within FTDD are Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable and Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy. With questions still remaining and committee chairman W.T. Daniels absent, they agreed to postpone a vote until the committee’s semiannual meeting in June.

Both strongly defended the general plan, though, which envisions using private sector investment to hire a staff that would try and unify the region’s economic development approach.

A new organization could supersede the two largest economic development organizations in the eight-county TFDD region. It has won board approval from one, the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership (NETREP), which oversees economic in Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties.

The board of NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership, which works in Sullivan and to some extent Hawkins counties, has not voted to approve the framework for a merger.

NETREP is a private-public partnership, but NETWORKS’ funding comes solely from the public sector.

When Luttrell asked whether salary levels for any staff had been determined, Venable said no, but that the board of directors would set those. That board would include some mayors but also leaders from investing private companies.

Venable took the opportunity to note all funding initially would be from private sector investors. He said salaries “would be based on the funding by private industry and the budget that would be adopted by the board once the organization is up and running.” 

Venable said Mark Fuller, a Boston-based consultant who Eastman Chemical has paid to study feasibility of a private-public partnership, has told him the interest is there on the part of private employers.

“We fully expect to have this fully funded and employ the top notch people this organization would require,” Venable said.

For that to happen under the auspices of FTDD’s foundation would make sense in some ways, as the public sector has a state-mandated role in economic development. But it won’t happen without a majority vote from the executive committee.

Grandy said some area mayors had met with the state commissioner of Economic and Community Development (ECD) and other ECD leaders recently about the effort.

“They expressed enthusiasm at having a regional organization to deal with in Northeast Tennessee,” he said.

That sentiment from Nashville is nothing new. Gov. Bill Lee said something similar at an economic forum held in September 2019 in Johnson City, where the regionalism subject was front and center.

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

Venable said he had also talked with commissioners from Tourism and Labor and Workforce Development recently.

“For a number of years this discussion has been held,” Venable said. “I don’t want to emphasize that we have unlimited, unfettered support but the commissioners I have talked to, which are numerous, say this would be a benefit to Northeast Tennessee.”