Kingsport can “draft” off the successes of our neighbors


So often life seems like a “zero-sum” game. If one person wins another, by definition, must lose. This condition assumes not only that the size of the pie is constant, you either get a piece or you don’t, but that each person wants the same piece. While this may describe some relationships, I’m not sure that is an accurate reflection of how most interactions work.

There are instances where both parties in a competition can benefit. For example, there is a concept in cycling called “drafting. This is where the lead cyclist breaks through the air and creates a slip stream behind him. Another biker behind takes advantage of the fact that the lead person is bearing the brunt of the air resistance.

The interesting thing about the aerodynamics of this event is that the cyclist in the lead benefits as well. The low-pressure area pulls the second person along, however, that person also extends the slipstream which reduces drag on the front rider. While the lead cyclist gains some advantage in this situation they still expend much more energy than those who follow.

The lesson from this example is that perhaps the best way to progress is not to simply move up next to the leader and challenge them in the open. In such a case, the advantage created by your competitor is negated and you end up expending more energy than necessary to make the same progress.

I believe that the way we have been treating regional competition has characteristics of both situations and our attempts at regionalism fail to understand these fundamental relationships.

The basic factor that mitigates against regional cooperation is the site based tax system. Property tax and sales tax largely go to the place in which they were generated, therefore, political boundaries matter greatly. If it is on my side of the line, I get it and you lose. This is fundamentally a zero-sum game.

In fact, in our area since the pie is quite literally “not growing” and we are fighting over the exact same retailers, it is absolutely cut-throat. Short of major legislative change in the tax structure, this condition is almost impossible to overcome. Logically, it must be taken as a given that between cities and counties and across state lines, it will always be open warfare when it comes to recruiting retail and hospitality establishments.

Therefore, the first step in creating true regionalism is to accept reality. We should look each other in the eye and say, “When it comes to retail, I will gut you like a pig. I will not cooperate, I will not ever give in. But, I understand you will do the same and we should not hold it against each other.”

However, there really are instances where we can “draft” off of each other and we should not let the retail warfare prevent such cooperation. We simply must realize it is just business.

Get that off the table once and for all and move on!

There are clear examples where success by one city has benefited other areas. Eastman, with its recent achievement and growth, is a prime example. In fact, the constant lamentations by Kingsport City leaders is an explicit acknowledgement that it is working.

The employment base is in Kingsport, clearly an economic “victory.” However, many employees choose to live in Johnson City and the surrounding counties. Clearly a “victory” for them.

Likewise, retail activity is consolidating in Bristol. It is evident that such growth is in some significant way based on the stable base of good jobs in other areas. Certainly, it isn’t because there is a job or business boom in that city alone.

It is obvious that job creation, regardless of where it lands is a source of growth for the entire region. Having said that, it is also clear that the “home” location benefits more. On the other hand, they are likely to have expended more effort than the communities “drafting” in the slip stream.

There will always be a differential in relative gains. This is also a fact of life whose acceptance would go a long way to making regionalism a reality.

Perhaps, we should spend more time capitalizing on our opportunities to draft off the relative accomplishment of our regional partners. From this we might discover new strategies to “sling-shot” ourselves around a  perceived leader to attain success in other areas.

If Johnson City and Bristol have capitalized on the business success of Kingsport, why can we not do the same? Their focus traditional housing and retail activity, leaves other areas open. They create a basis for maintaining the “happiness” of the baby-boomer generation. We should not move out into the still air to expend energy to match them in those areas. Rather we should focus on other opportunities.

As I have said before, there is a growing demographic of Gen-Xers and Millennials. They are not particularly enamored of those “traditional” amenities. If we were to focus on what they want, which is where the future is going, we can build on what everybody else is doing and take advantage of other trends.

We should also stop dragging irrelevant competitive successes (be they retail attractions or the score of some long-ago football game) into the regional equation and come together to create a truly regional business recruitment strategy.

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