JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- Hundreds of local leaders attended East Tennessee State University’s Regional Economic Forum on Tuesday to discuss a future of collaboration on economic development in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

MORE: Regional Economic Forum: LIVE BLOG

“We have to act and we have to act now,” said Andy Dietrich, former chairman of the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce. “If we speak with one voice instead of eight to ten we will get more accomplished. This will not be easy but we must persevere.”

Dr. Jon Smith, director ETSU’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, shared sobering data on GDP growth in the Tri-Cities following the Great Recession.

“Asheville and Nashville really rebounded well. The disturbing thing we see here is, for Johnson City, a very, very modest rebound and the Kingsport MSA, a negative growth path,” Smith said.

ETSU President Brian Noland raised concerns about young professionals with advanced degrees leaving the area after graduation.

Noland said this trend is draining the human capital critical to growth in a knowledge economy.

“This is a bad picture,” echoed Smith.

With the exception of Washington County, Tennessee, Noland said county populations in the region are declining or stagnant.

“We are one of a handful of sections of this state, in fact, the only clustered section of this state, in which there is no population growth,” he said.

Bad news aside, leaders also discussed a number of solutions.

One began last fall when the Sullivan County and Washington County Commissions met jointly for the first time.

Since then, Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy said a Blue Ribbon Task Force has appointed five regionalism action groups to study improvements in five key focus areas.

He said one of the early conclusions was that the region has a need for more entrepreneurial training and supports.”These are the biggest obstacles and deficiencies in the region when we compare ourselves with other competitive markets,” said Grandy.

Mark Fuller, founding chairman and CEO of Rosc Global, said the region also needs to improve its marketing strategy to attract new businesses and tourists.

“To get them to come to visit they have to know that we’re here and that there is something worth visiting,” said Fuller.

A panel of major employers emphasized the organization of the region’s economic development system needs to be reformed.

“We are not remotely configured to compete and win and we’re so far from it that if we don’t do something radically different then we’re not going to actually succeed,” said Eastman Chairman and CEO Mark Costa. “We’ve got to decide as a region if we’re going to come together and be the place that is easy to interact with.”

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee said his administration is committed to helping rural areas improve.

He said his first executive order was to ask all 23 departments of state government to make a strategic plan on how it could positively impact distressed counties.

Lee praised Tuesday’s forum as a positive step for the region.

“One of the reasons this particular meeting is valuable is because when you convene…you elevate the conversation,” said Lee.