Road to Regionalism: Task force recommends expanding entrepreneurship

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(WJHL)-Some say the Tri-Cities region is at a disadvantage when it comes to entrepreneurial development.

A Blue Ribbon Task Force on Regionalism, appointed by the mayors of Sullivan and Washington Counties last year, has been looking for ways to change that.

Experts say working together regionally to help local entrepreneurs create jobs is critical, especially for rural areas that may struggle to compete with major cities to recruit outside businesses.

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“The popular concept has always been ‘we’ll go out and find us a business and industry to come here and they’ll bring all these jobs in and everything will be hunky-dory,” said data-analyst Don Fenley. “The problem is that just doesn’t happen that much.”

Following the Great Recession, Fenley said entrepreneurs rebounded faster than “more traditional businesses” in the Tri-Cities.

To measure this activity, Fenley tracks “nonemployer businesses,” a phrase coined by the IRS that basically means businesses with no employees.

According to the latest U.S. Census data, he said there were more than 30 thousand non-employer businesses in the Tri-Cities. That’s over 13 percent of the total employment in seven Northeast Tennessee counties and about 14 percent of the region’s real GDP.

There are more than 30 thousand non-employer businesses in the Tri-Cities.

“If the so-called experts are right, it’s going to be an increasingly important part of the labor market,” Fenley said.

John Campbell, volunteer executive director of AccelNow, said it’s this recognition that prompted the Blue Ribbon Task Force to make entrepreneurial development one of five focus areas.

“Having worked in economic development for about 40 years in this region, I knew this was an area that got very little attention,” Campbell said.

He said the group is recommending expanding educational opportunities. “You can now have a very affordable program where every high school in the area perhaps could offer at least one-semester course on entrepreneurship and business,” he said.

To make an idea a reality, entrepreneurs need support.

Heath Guinn is the founder of Sync Space, the first shared workspace in Kingsport. He said it’s one of several resources that’s popped up in the Tri-Cities over the last two decades to provide that support.

Heath Guinn, the founder of Sync Space in Kingsport, sits down with News Channel 11.

“There is an overabundance of services for these small companies but not a lot of communications between the cities and counties,” Guinn said.

To make the Tri-Cities more competitive with other major markets in the state, the task force is proposing funding a permanent staff to coordinate regional resources.

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Campbell said more money is also needed to help boost businesses with high potential. “At this time there is no venture fund in the region and that’s something that needs to happen,” he said.

The good news is an accelerator program is currently in the works. Guinn said it will formally launch in January.

Guinn said it’s a weeks-long course where entrepreneurs can access mentors and investors.

CONTINUING COVERAGE: Road to Regionalism: Should counties be consolidated?

Guinn said it’s a first-of-its-kind resource in our region that other Tennessee cities already have.

“That gives us a great tool to recruit companies from outside the area or find companies here that need that acceleration and have hyper-focus on them to help them grow because of what they can do in our community,” he said.

He said they’re looking for companies focused on community health, education, medical devices and software that can engage in the market through pilot programs, prototyping services and research agreements.

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