Failed leadership to blame for Kingsport’s problems
What is happening in Kingsport? In a nutshell, we are not growing, and the attempts to “prime the pump” have been largely unsuccessful. We must alter course.
First, a sobering dose of reality. We have lost both jobs and people.
Kingsport (Sullivan County/ Bristol) Census area is shrinking. We lost almost 3,200 people in the past five years. The principal driver for the shift is a simple fact that the death rate exceeds the birth rate, and we are not attracting new people. During the same period, both Hawkins and Washington County areas grew.
Kingsport’s rate of economic growth also faded. Employment in the Kingsport-Bristol area is down by over 9,600 jobs from pre-recession base.
Furthermore, we are replacing the once good-paying manufacturing employment with low-wage retail-hospitality jobs. This is borne out by the decline in average wages. According to the current Bureau of Labor Statistics wage report, the weekly average for private-sector workers in Kingsport-Bristol is $624 (barely 50 percent above the poverty level for a family of four), down $9 from February last year.
This is particularly critical because other opportunities are lacking in our region. During the past year both manufacturing and tech-information sector jobs dropped significantly.
Why relay such negative news? Because it is important to confront the truth (“real” not “fake” or imagined).
Until our leadership actually acknowledges this “truth” we will continue to make poor decisions.
Because our city leadership has erroneously equated “success” with increased tax revenue, we continue to prioritize retail development. While one might argue that even these jobs are better than no jobs, it also disguises the insidious effects. We are not creating jobs that provide hope and optimism for the future. This is causing an erosion of our employment and population base.
We have extravagantly promoted apartment construction in a vain hope that supply creates demand. It is unreasonable to believe that such an immense increase of rental units (subsidized to the tune of over $15 million in taxes) will substantively attract new residents. Do we really believe that over 600 new households will move to Kingsport just because we have new apartments? At best, it will affect things at the margin.
What is likely to happen is the substitution effect as people migrate from existing rental complexes to the new developments. Without an influx of new demand for apartment dwellings, such a massive growth in supply will depress prices (this is how the market works). This will likely cause a deterioration of the existing stock and convert some to low-income units. On the positive side, this will meet the needs of those forced into lowwage jobs.
Don’t we get it? Poor jobs and low-income housing depress our economy, not build it up. The binary nature of Kingsport’s demographics (haves and have-nots) will be heightened. Rather than becoming a destination for economic growth, we have embarked on a series of policies whose logical outcome is exactly what we are trying to avoid.
Is this the community we are striving to build? Well, it is the community our policies are driving us toward. It is the result of failed leadership and vision.
It is far past time to “pivot” toward a more productive approach. So, what should we do?
First, stop acting like we can’t get a date to the prom. Kingsport is a great community, and we should stop begging others to like us (or move here and build their business here). We simply do not believe in ourselves. Rather than trying to be a better version of Kingsport, we seek to be a cheap imitation of our neighbors. Don’t covet thy neighbor’s ass.
Stop subsidizing developments that fail to bring in meaningful jobs. We are distorting the market, creating oversupply and undermining existing tax-paying businesses. We don’t have a property tax problem; we have simply given it away creating a further burden on people and businesses that are paying the freight.
Stop compounding our problems. Poor investments have created significant financial liabilities that the city must backstop. For example, Kingsport needlessly invested almost $3 million in the “supermarket row” property on Sullivan Street and is now giving over $7 million to a developer to take it off our hands. Two bad decisions do not make a good one.
At a minimum, we need to give local businesses the same opportunities we give outsiders. We are more than willing to give external developers tax breaks, but we rarely give the same credence to businesses and experts we have at home.
In that light, we should focus on entrepreneurship and creating jobs organically. For example, we should capitalize on the recently announced expansion of the 3D printing/ additive manufacturing programs at the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing.
We have a marvelous opportunity to build on our work force development investments and begin to create a robust infrastructure to promote and nurture truly investable start-up businesses.
We have bypassed this opportunity in the past, instead opting to build a $5 million stadium upper deck and now spending OneKingsport tax dollars on consultants and aesthetic improvements. Perhaps worthy expenditures in the grand scheme, but certainly not job-generating activities.
Finally, we must stop spending like we have cash to burn and tighten our municipal belt. The first thing a business does under economic duress is to find ways to become more efficient. Antithetically, Kingsport’s approach has been to expand its bureaucracy.
In short, we must: Stop spending, bloating and wasting. Define ourselves; cut our losses; become more efficient; and only invest in projects that give us a demonstrable return (create good jobs). Save the nice-to-have stuff for later.
A recent tweet I saw says it all, “Self-deception blinds us to the true causes of problems, once we’re blind, all the ‘solutions’ we think of will only make matters worse.”