Kingsport must embrace change and harness it to build our future

                We are facing a brave new world. Within our region there are great shifts afoot. For Kingsport, not all of those are positive. It is time for us to change.

Like it or not, retail is migrating towards Bristol. This is largely the result of a massive public subsidy that ultimately distorts economic interaction. This may end up badly for them.

Build it and they will come only works so long as tax money subsidizes the “build.” The bottom line is that the market always works. In the end, demand drives supply, not the other way around.

Our city leaders must accept that there is no volume of subsidy that will drag the retail back home and trying to do so will simply exhaust our public coffers to little effect.

Likewise, the Boones Creek area has developed into the enclave of the well-to-do. We cannot match the Ridges nor the high-end housing around it. We could spend millions of tax-payer dollars in pursuit of neighborhoods that will never exist. That is unsound policy.

Furthermore, our incessant complaining about the success of our neighbors does nothing but advertise their relative attractiveness. When we publicly bemoan the fact that Johnson City has better housing than we do, we simply say to the next executive that comes to town that there is the place for him to live. When we point out that all the retail is moving to Bristol, we tell our citizens to go there to shop.

We need to stop playing on their terms. We are unique and we should quit comparing ourselves to someone else. Until we do, we will never discover who we are and what we have to offer.

We need a campaign organized around the emerging paradigm. We are moving into the digital world. In this context, I am not solely referring to computers. Rather it is an emerging socio-economic transformation in which the Millennials and Gen-Xers are supplanting Baby-boomers in the workplace.

The implications of this are far-reaching. Demand will shift dramatically away from Big Box retail toward the internet. Mobile transactions and banking will dramatically reduce the need for bricks and mortar facilities. Sprawl and McMansions in the suburbs will lose their appeal.

The combination of demand for “exactly what I want” and the desire for “instant gratification” will alter not only the way we shop and receive goods and services, it will alter the way we produce them.

It is already happening.

With Amazon Prime, I can purchase just about anything on-line less expensively that I can in a store and have it shipped to me free in two days. How long will shopping centers last against such an onslaught? What is the long-term return on the tens of millions of dollars that are being spent to subsidize such developments? In ten years how much of the retail landscape we now know will be around?

The desire for “cheap” drove manufacturing off-shore. The trend toward “unique” is already returning it home. The future is specialty customization and replication rather than mass-production.

What does this mean for Kingsport’s ability to compete both locally and globally? It plays to our strengths and sets us up for success. However, it also portends a period of potentially difficult transition.

First, we should establish a new brand founded on our old identity. Kingsport was created as a “Planned Industrial Community.” We can become the “3D Printing/Additive Manufacturing Hub of the Southeast.”

This is forward looking. It builds on our workforce training and education programs. It is attractive to the next generation. It is compatible with our heritage. Quite honestly, it makes virtually every investment we have made in this community over the past fifteen years worthwhile.

It is also scary and uncertain. This change will not happen overnight. As we invest for it, we will see a slackening in some forms of revenue, particularly sales tax. That will limit our resources, but it will limit them far less that if we double-down on a fight with our neighbors for the past.

Let’s play to our strengths. We have a great community and we can build a compelling story for the future, one that sets us up to once again become the leader of the region.

The first step is for us to not just embrace the change, but to harness that change in order to enhance our community. It will take a leap of faith, the type that built this community in the first place. To do otherwise is to betray our legacy as well as our future.




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