Perhaps it is time to rethink the “indirect approach” to growth of our community

Much has happened over the past twenty years in Kingsport. The community is much improved. Despite the difficult choices that our leaders must make when it comes to taxes and expenditures, we have much to be proud of. Yet, we must also admit that we have not grown substantively.

We have expanded in size through annexation. That activity has brought in a few more people, but also increased the burden on services. We have more retail and hospitality activity. That has brought in some additional tax revenue, but not as much as would be expected because we have subsidized the expansion with public funds. We have many new public facilities that have increased our recreation opportunities. In order to do so, we have borrowed significant new sums of money and find that some venues require ongoing financial support.

Our policy appears to have been predicated on the philosophy that if we add the amenities that other “popular” places have, we will be more attractive to outside businesses and people. Some have termed it the “build it and they will come” philosophy. I think that is a bit unfair, if somewhat accurate statement. Rather, one might call it the “indirect approach.” If we make ourselves a great place to live, with a well educated work force and many quality of life amenities, we ought to appear on the radar of people and companies looking to relocate.

However, the basic truth is that despite all of our efforts, we have not really increased our productive capacity and jobs. For a community, that is a fundamental measure of success. Jobs create pay checks and that money increases demand which is the driver for all of the other things we would like to have. More important, wages are a basic prerequisite for quality of life. Without a good paying job, a person simply cannot afford to live in the lifestyle they would like regardless of the amenities we have created. In this regard, we have fallen behind.

I recently asked a City leader, “What would a Board of Directors of a company that had not grown in over a decade do?” Fundamentally this is the question facing the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Alderman today. The answer is as simple in concept as it is difficult to implement.

First, you replace management! That is happening.

Next, the City of Kingsport needs a new business plan, a new strategy. In order to do that, we must change our philosophy. Rather than trying to be more like the other places, we need to differentiate ourselves, and do so in a way that is compatible with our history and who we are today. Basically, we have pursued the acquisition of things that other communities have, restaurants, shopping, etc. Even when we are successful that just makes us one of the crowd.

Do we really think people would go to Abingdon to eat at a chain restaurant? If not, why do we think people will move to Kingsport because we have the same stores they have in Knoxville?

In addition, we must finally recognize “demand” drives the economy. Our focus has been on increasing supply: supply of retail, supply of restaurants, etc. At one point, there was some indication that people were leaving Kingsport to shop in other communities because we did not have the variety of choice that existed elsewhere. We have carried that to the extreme as a justification for our actions.

We have also increased the supply of employees. We do a wonderful job of educating and training our children. Then they move away because there simply are not the employment opportunities to keep them here. The fundamental issue is one of opportunity. Without it, our community’s biggest export is our talent. We must stop this hemorrhage.

The opportunities we seek are not going to drop down from the State economic development programs like manna from Heaven; nor will they spring up spontaneously from our own womb in the form of new micro businesses. Both sources of activity are important, but we must build an entrepreneurial business infrastructure that makes us unique.

New opportunities in design, and production are transforming manufacturing. The mass production model that exported jobs overseas is being disrupted and supplanted by specialty customization that meets our demand for immediate gratification. There is an opportunity to bring good jobs back home and build them from within. A new focus on additive manufacturing complements our industrial heritage and the existing training programs with facilities like the RCAM.

We have taken the indirect approach, now it is time to invest directly in the future.

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