JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Regional cooperation may be a hot topic in the Tri-Cities as of late. But Bill Greene has been talking about it for decades. “It’s very important,” he told News Channel 11 in a recent interview. “It’s very very important.”
The legendary banking executive and philanthropist is revered by Tri-Cities business, government and education leaders. He was among the first to initiate the current regionalism discussion, and his voice is widely considered to be among the most influential.
“The nicest thing about being 82 is you can say what you think,” Greene said, laughing. “It’s not like they’re going to shoot me.”
But some may not be comfortable with Greene’s assessment of recent attempts to break from the old ways of inter-governmental competition for new jobs and tourism business.
“So far the regional cooperation hasn’t gotten traction,” Greene said. “We’ve raised awareness, but there’s no traction. And I don’t see traction happening in the immediate future.”
Greene believes the missing element so far is buy-in from the people who live here and the private sector businesses who haven’t been included in the discussions so far.
“Until you get the private sector involved you’re not going to make much headway,” he said. “If this issue doesn’t spring up from the people that live here and realize what we have and what we’re doing and where we’re going, it doesn’t make any difference what Eastman and Ballad or ETSU or Bill Greene or the banking industry think. It’s a people issue. It’s got to come from the bottom up.”
Greene was part of a regional economic forum held at ETSU’s Millennium Center in September. But two months later, he doesn’t hesitate in his critique of the marquee event.
“We have made a major mistake,” Greene said referencing the forum. “We somewhat ignored Bristol,” Greene said. “That was a huge mistake.”
Greene also said it’s critical to diversify the regionalism’s leadership with more women and minority representatives and more voices from outside the metro Tri-Cities.
“We have got to make sure that we bring Greeneville to Abingdon and Southwest Virginia in,” he said. “We ignored them in that Millennium Center conversation we had… I don’t know how we did that.”
Greene acknowledges that branding is a big concern. With several communities across the nation calling themselves the “Tri-Cities”, he thinks it’s critical Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia develop a distinct identity when attracting prospective businesses to move to the area.
“You have to have some ability to identify yourself,” he said. “Contrary to what some people think, we don’t have that ability. You think you do if you live here and haven’t traveled around a lot. But you really don’t.”
The name “Appalachian Highlands” seems to have the most support when it comes to a new regional name. Bill Greene’s take?
“I’m okay with it,” he said “I’m not the cheerleader, but I’m okay with it. And until you can come up with a better name and convince me it’s better for whatever reason, I’m okay with it.”
But Greene has bigger concerns than a new brand.
“We have a gold mine here and we haven’t figured out how to harvest it,” he said.
So in addition to mustering private sector support for regional cooperation, he says it’s essential elected and appointed leaders in the Tri-Cities Region become willing to abandon current government and economic development structures that divide the region and create a brand new, streamlined umbrella organization that speaks as a unified voice.
“You’re dealing with all this public garbage, and everyone is trying to not to step on anyone’s toes,” Greene said. “In the private sector, I would have shot it down in a New York second and we’d already been doing it and moved on and we’d be doing it and accomplished it.”
He thinks leaders need to be open to consolidating government services and even agencies. “It’s obvious that if you consolidate you improve efficiency,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to sit here and play this game. It’s ludicrous to have 24 or 25 commissioners in a county.”
And Greene doesn’t hold back in his take on the current discussion over how to merge preexisting and competing regional economic development groups.
“The reality is I’d shoot ’em both. I’d blow them both up and start from scratch. This is ludicrous. In the private sector I’d blow them both up and start again. Can’t do that. We have too many political ego’s involved. Too many people under contract that never should have been under contract. Too many golden parachutes out there hanging.
Greene acknowledges what he envisions may not be possible. But he says the need for radical change is clear.
“We have the most beautiful part of Tennessee. We’re not crowded. We have a great quality of life. Cost of living is pretty good. Crime is low. Temperature is four seasons. Why would you not want to live here? It’s the best part of the state to live in. Yet when you stop and think of it – we have declining birth rates, GDP is going south, and only one county in five surrounding counties that’s shown any growth at all. Something is wrong. Something is dead wrong.”
Greene says he believes a new spirit of regionalism leaves plenty of room for local cities and counties to retain their identity and community pride. But he says the Tri-Cities is essentially at war for its financial survival. “And when you’re in battle, you don’t turn to the guy beside you and care where he’s from,” Greene said. “You fight. And you fight together.”
Despite his concerns, Greene says he’s optimistic because of what the region could be.
“If we can figure out a way to explain it to the 760-thousand people here, this is going to be the most attractive area in the South.”