BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. — A merger of two local economic development organizations could be on the horizon, but officials aren’t saying much about the details.

Discussions have been underway to merge NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership and Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership (NeTREP) into one organization. NETWORKS CEO Clay Walker brought the topic up during a NETWORKS board meeting on Wednesday. Now is the time for ideas to come out, he said.

NETWORKS represents Sullivan County and its cities. NeTREP represents Carter, Unicoi and Washington counties.

The potential merger comes as local leaders have pushed for an increased focus on “regionalism,” or local cities and counties working together for the good of the entire region. Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable and Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy formed a task force and committees last year for the counties to work together on regional economic development efforts, and their work is already underway. Regional groups consisting of political and business leaders also commissioned a study, released in August, by North Star Destination Strategies to help rename the Tri-Cities region, which suggested using “Appalachian Highlands” to encompass the region’s cities and counties.

“I think we’re focused on that [merger] a lot, and that’s just one possible avenue,” Walker said after the meeting. “It’s important that we vet all of the potential ways we can better collaborate for the betterment of the entire region that doesn’t compromise anybody’s individual stake but lifts everybody’s potential, and truly nobody’s left behind.”

He added that “merger” probably isn’t the right word, even though he’s been using it, because that’s not really what could happen. Instead, the two partnerships would form a new organization comprised of NETWORKS and NeTREP, Walker said. Another option could be to keep the entities separate but have greater communication between the CEOs.

“I don’t know if any of these are the answer — that’s why we’re vetting it — but I think we’re going to land somewhere probably pretty quickly,” Walker said. “That won’t mean it’s done, but it will land somewhere as to what our path forward is.”

NeTREP CEO Mitch Miller wrote in an email to the Bristol Herald Courier that he believes counties working together would be more effective.

“This region is facing challenges and no one county is different,” Miller wrote. “We can be more effective addressing similar problems together. Economies are regional and operating as one group provides a platform for greater success.”

He said he and Walker began discussing a possible merger last year.

Miller also shared a joint statement from the organizations, dated Sept. 25, that states the groups will:

» Support each other’s efforts while continuing to pursue their own missions;

» Collaborate where possible;

» Share opportunities;

» Continue to speak positively of the other organization;

» Offer support for projects;

» Refrain from encouraging or incentivizing established businesses to relocate from one county to another;

» Strive to foster a higher standard of living and better quality of life for residents regardless of political boundaries and jurisdictions.

It also states that, if a merger — or becoming part of the same organization — is in the best interest of the region, NETWORKS and NeTREP will be “willing to explore such [a] concept and what it would mean with an open mind.”

When asked after the meeting, Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable, who helped form NETWORKS and was its first CEO, wouldn’t say much, since a proposal hasn’t been given yet.

“I think there’s going to be a good, wide range of discussion,” he said. “I don’t anticipate that there will be any effort to force them to group together. I just don’t see that. It’s the natural progression — can we be better together?”

Bristol Tennessee Mayor Margaret Feierabend, who is a NETWORKS board member, said she’s cautious about a merger.

“I think it’s figuring out how can we work together better regionally and what that looks like — so whether it’s a combination, or creation of a new organization, or just a higher level of collaboration,” she said. “It gets complicated when you start talking about a merger — really complicated — because of how [NETWORKS] is structured for having to have approval from each of the governing bodies, not just the [NETWORKS] board.”

Talks of regionalism, Feierabend added, haven’t brought all localities to the table — the focus has only been on the Tri-Cities and Northeast Tennessee, she said.

Kingsport Mayor Pat Shull, who is a NETWORKS board member, didn’t say whether he’s for or against a merger but said Tri-Cities governments have cooperated in the past on “areas of mutual interest,” touting Tri-Cities Airport’s Aerospace Park as an example.

“We’ve shown we have the ability to plan and execute and do things together, but when you get to the realm of economic development, we haven’t had something we can latch onto — something concrete,” he said. “I think intuitively you can acknowledge the fact that if you speak with several counties’ voice instead of one, that’s more influential, and we may get there. I just think it’s going to be a series of small steps.”

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