The citizenry must take action to reclaim Kingsport’s future

I am deeply concerned with the direction our community is headed. For all of our efforts at visioning and strategizing, we still lack a coherent view of what our community should be in the future. We have developed lists of things we want to have, things that we feel are essential. But collectively they do not provide a conceptual framework for the coherent improvement of our community.

What do we mean when we talk about “growth” for our community? For over 20 years, Kingsport has followed a pattern of geographic expansion in what to date has been an unsuccessful attempt to increase the population and spur economic growth. This program has created conflict with the surrounding counties as the city expands outward, providing services, but also consuming existing and potential commercial and residential areas. We also find ourselves with long commitments to fulfill plans of services for outlying areas, most requiring infrastructure upgrades, while the city is saddled with a fairly high debt load.

I have been accused of being “anti-growth.” If one defines growth under the old cult of growth-ism (i.e., getting bigger), then I guess the answer is “yes.” Unfortunately, there appears to be an implicit assumption on the part of our leaders that “bigger is better.” I question that position.

Perhaps an example is illuminating. In 1991 when I left the military, I interviewed for a position as a strategic planner for the now infamous Enron. As I visited the various operating divisions, I was struck by the unswerving focus on becoming larger, to become the size of one of the major energy companies like Exxon or Shell. No one really talked about what they produced or created, they only talked about getting big. I opted not to take the position and in retrospect saw that Enron had done exactly what it intended. It got big. But it ultimately failed. Is there a lesson in this for Kingsport?

Clearly, we want some type of growth. But how should we define this concept? Is it simply an expanded geographic size or population? To what end does this occur? Is there a specific size that we seek? How many square miles are sufficient? Is the single-minded pursuit of ever increasing tax revenue the goal? How large a tax burden is required? Does it really matter whether people are inside or outside some arbitrary line defining city limits? What are the benefits of garnering those tax dollars? What are the costs? There are no answers.

In 1998, while serving on the Regional Planning Commission in response to the state’s Smart Growth Law, I wrote, “We must look at growth, based not on geographic sprawl, rather our view should be based on accomplishing strategic objectives defined by the community, some of which may be related to geographic growth, but are not specifically predicated on an expanded geographic area to be successful.

“To do this, we must wipe the slate clean. We should stop asking questions like: ‘Should we spend X million dollars to provide infrastructure to annex and open up this new territory to development ?’ This question assumes that expansion/annexation outward (sprawl) is something that should be done. We should rephrase the question: ‘If we are willing to spend X million dollars, where and how should we spend it to maximize the opportunity to expand our long-term quality of life?’

“Perhaps the answer to that question will lead us down a different path to economic growth. We need an alternative that allows us to both maintain the essential qualities of our city (planned community), as well as reap the benefits of economic expansion, without the political and financial costs of expanding the city limits.”

Those words are as true today as they were then. We need a new definition of “growth” and a new paradigm. In order to accomplish that, we first need a vision of what Kingsport looks like in the future. It must be based on a firm understanding of what we are today and, therefore, what we have to offer in terms of environment and capabilities. We must look at opportunities beyond our immediate environs that may mesh with our characteristics. We must paint a picture that represents possible alternative outcomes that define a place in which we collectively want to live. Finally, our plans must be firmly constrained by a realistic appraisal of resources limitations. Currently, none of this is being done.

This all sounds rather vague. In some respects it is, but without such a discussion and assessment, we will continue to react to anyone that puts forth an idea. Like a child distracted by a shiny object, we have spent millions in spasmodic expenditures without any coherent idea of their impact. “Do something, anything!” seems to be our war cry. We do not seem to understand that while most things may have some benefit to the community, not all benefits are commensurate with the costs.

Over the next several columns, I will try to flesh out this concept to provide food for thought, perhaps seeds for a communitywide discussion about our future. Our leaders have steadfastly refused such a broad effort, so it is time for the citizenry to reclaim the future.

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