JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — A forum held Tuesday in Johnson City was a call to action for local business, industry and higher education leaders to address the region’s stagnant population and economic development growth.

Hundreds gathered at East Tennessee State University’s Millennium Center to hear data reports on population and workforce trends. A panel of local leaders also answered questions about what they think should be done to move the region forward.

The meeting was called the Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia Regional Economic Forum, but the focus was primarily on Northeast Tennessee.

The overall takeaway of the four-hour forum was a focus on “regionalism,” which would encourage cooperation between Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia to boost prosperity, quality of life, economic development and job opportunities. Many speakers hoped to form an “umbrella agency” that could represent the region.

The regionalism effort has been underway for more than a year with the creation of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, made up of mayors and commissioners of Sullivan and Washington counties in Tennessee. The task force aims to bolster regional cooperation on tourism, economic development and workforce development and recruitment. A total of 70 participants, divided into five action groups from several Northeast Tennessee counties, will present their conclusions to the task force in a few weeks, according to Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy.

Eastman Chemical Co. CEO Mark Costa, Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine, Niswonger Foundation Chairman Scott Niswonger, Bank of Tennessee’s Bill Greene Jr. and Bristol Motor Speedway General Manager Jerry Caldwell talked about the need for a regional effort because they’ve seen that — historically and currently — there isn’t a clear reason for outside companies to locate to the region, and the economy is suffering because of it.

Some speakers also highlighted the recent push to rename the Tri-Cities and surrounding areas to create a unified brand; the “Appalachian Highlands” has been a likely candidate for the name change. All localities haven’t agreed to the change, but Costa said it’s time to make a decision because rebranding would allow better marketing for the region to serve all areas economically without giving up each locality’s unique identity. Greene said business, education and health care leaders are on board to move the region forward, but local government leaders aren’t, which he believes is the final piece to making progress.

Costa later summed up the forum by outlining some likely next steps:

» Create an umbrella organization to bring the region together as an “integrated team” to make economic development decisions;

» Expand tourism, medical and advanced manufacturing opportunities;

» Unify marketing and rename the region;

» Support entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Several speakers said counties competing against each other instead of working together have been holding the region back. Greene called it a “turf war” that he’s been fighting against for 62 years, and he’s pleased to see progress being made.

Population and workforce data shared by Jon Smith, chairman of the Tri-Cities Airport Authority and an ETSU economics professor, and ETSU President Brian Noland revealed that Tennessee, and specifically Northeast Tennessee, hasn’t kept up with the shift from an industrial economy to a “knowledge” economy based on higher education. Not doing so has thwarted sustainable economic growth because people without degrees are struggling to find jobs. They also said the health of people overall is poor and death rates are exceeding birth rates.

Mark Fuller, chairman and CEO of Rosc Global, was invited to spend time in the region over the last several months to learn about its economic challenges and assets to provide feedback as an outside source on what should be done going forward to improve the quality of life here.

He said a “radical overhaul” needs to be made to boost the region’s strongest economies — advanced manufacturing, health care and tourism — by being transparent about the issues and communicating constructively to focus on upgrading the workforce.

One of the last speakers was Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee. He told the crowd what they’d heard was most likely nothing new to them but that change has to occur for the state to prosper, and the government’s job is to provide that environment while local leaders carry out the work.

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