Population decline is putting the Tri-Cities at a disadvantage for business recruitment, experts say


Experts say the Tri-Cities region is at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting new business. 

Local leaders are backing a push to rename the region to try and change that.

In April, Johnson City Commissioners approved a $48 thousand study, split between several localities, to pay an outside marketing firm to come up with a new regional brand for the Tri-Cities. 

Local leaders say regional branding is necessary to help the area stand out on the world stage and to counter what experts call ‘troubling trends’ for economic development. 

According to the U.S. Census data from 2012-2017, Johnson City’s GDP grew by 12 percent but the Kingsport-Bristol area fell by about 2 percent.  During that same time period, metropolitan neighbors saw double-digit growth, Nashville by 38 percent, Chattanooga by 18 percent and Knoxville by 20 percent. 

That’s not the only data that business leaders say is a cause for concern. 

According to Jon Smith, director of East Tennessee State University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, population decline is a red flag for businesses looking to relocate.

“The population drives a lot of this stuff. It drives retail sales and the ability of a community to produce,” said Smith. 

“It might hurt our chances in landing a large business or manufacturer. That’s why we’ve got to do something now to tackle this,” said Andy Dietrich, the former board chair of the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce. 

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Smith said one of the main things businesses look at is workforce population and, compared to regional neighbors, the Tri-Cities is at a disadvantage. 

Since 2010, Asheville, North Carolina’s workforce has grown by about ten percent. That’s more than 20 thousand people. Knoxville’s has declined by one percent or about 5 thousand people. 

Meanwhile, Johnson City’s metropolitan statistical area has lost about 10 percent of its workforce. That’s more than 9 thousand potential or active employees. Likewise, the Kingsport and Bristol area has lost about 6 percent, which is more than 8 thousand people. 

“It’s a vicious cycle. As rural counties lose population to metropolitan counties, it just makes it harder for them to continue to survive,” said Smith.

There’s an uphill battle ahead, in part, because the average age in our area is rising, according to Dietrich.  “We do need the younger people, the younger families coming here, having babies, buying houses and helping our economy,” he said. 

East Tennessee State University draws thousands of young students to Washington County, Tennessee every year. 

“If you train someone here if they come here to learn, chances are they will stay here,” said Bob Plummer,  executive director of ETSU’s National Alumni Association. 

That’s the ideal but, often, that’s not the case, said Smith. 

According to his analysis, since 2000, the majority of people moving into Washington County were 20 to 24-year-olds. Yet, by the heart of their careers, he said many of those same graduates appear to be leaving to pursue job opportunities outside of their college town. 

“Employment is the most vital gift we can give the latest graduates, whether they’re from high school or college. It helps keep the population here,” said Plummer. 

In the past, business leaders say county lines have prevented regional collaboration on job recruitment.

Now, that attitude is changing, according to Jerry Caldwell, Bristol Motor Speedway general manager and past board chair of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce. “We all see the need because it’s real. We all see the potential, there are lots of great things on the horizon if we can all pool together,” he said. 

Caldwell is one of many business leaders who’re supporting efforts to rebrand the Tri-Cities region to help the area stand out in a global economy. 

“It won’t solve all of our problems,” Dietrich said. “It will just help us market ourselves as one region.” 

Dietrich said the area has a number of assets, like natural beauty, light traffic and a low cost of living. These are all things business leaders hope a new branding strategy will communicate. 

“If we can showcase this on a national stage, as a bigger brand, when we’re all working together, we know if we get people here they’ll love it,” said Caldwell. 

SEE ALSORenaming the Region

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