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.”

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10 Responses

  1. Janice Nick says:

    You have hit the nail on the head. There are more wasteful dollars that have gone into bike paths downtown that go unused and a projected sidewalk on stone drive among other pie in the sky ideas. I believe, as do others, much of this wasteful spending in lieu of targeted spending, was for the benefit of the good ole boy regime. At one time, Kingsport was the largest and most progressive town in the Tri-cities … Hopefully it can get back in the running!

  2. Kaye Ball says:

    Thank God someone has the guts to stand up for Kingsport and speak the truth! I am a small business owner and I am begging for people to support me instead of going to Bristol and Johnson City to spend their money.. I agree with everything you said Dave. I have lived here for 63 years and I have never felt so depressed about the city I grew up in. I am saddened by the fact that we would try this hard to keep up with the neighbors when we have nothing to compete with. New apartments, what about the ones falling down? Bike lanes, we take our life in our hands on Stone Dr everyday and of course, Downtown. I am so sick of hearing about downtown improvements and parks, that we don’t need! What about the Town Center, the movie theatre, the Crossings? Do they even know the city limits go past downtown? We have got to elect some leaders that can keep us from going down the drain. Why would anybody want to live in a new apartment here when we have nothing else to offer? Oh that’s right, Bristol shopping is just up the road! Wake up and smell the coffee Kingsport! Thank you Eastman, you are the biggest reason we are not a ghost town. Dave, you need to run for Mayor!

  3. Brian Malone says:

    You mean the multi million dollar millennial park isnt needed? But that fountain will be so pretty to throw pennies in!!!! Thank you for trying to educate people of what is really going on. This is spot on. Kingsport needs GROWTH…REAL GROWTH!!!!

  4. Rob says:

    Gee, Dave, I agree with you. Here is how you help the community..stop building, schools on top of other schools, like in Sullivan Gardens, stop enabling the SCBOE idiots who want to build a high school at the airport, which will further erode the population.
    How will that erode it, you say?
    People will move to the school, and new parents will desert the local area. Leaving Bloomingdale either a retirement community or crack housing.
    You are compounding the whole county school problem by competing with the county system.
    Call for metro schools… one administrator over the whole system, equal pay across the cities and the county, leave neighborhoods and schools alone… just think of the improvements to All the schools that could be made, if kids went into properly zoned schools. 140 million won’t fix the counties problems
    Nor will overcrowding DB.

  5. Julia says:

    I agree! Why does the city always want new people to move here perhaps fueled by Eastman recruiting high paying jobs from all over the country. It seems the new apartments had employees in mind moving here from out of area. We need to be investing in our people! Academic programs offered at cram is a good start. We need more grants programs for the talented young people. Train our people for higher paying jobs give them opportunities. Kingsport First!

  6. Luke says:

    Dan, you have some great points here. I especially agree that Kingsport is trying to be a cheap imitation of its neighbors.

    The reality to me is that Kingsport is not an attractive place to live, especially to young people. The city is trying to make it more attractive, but I do agree that they are making many bad decisions in their attempt. Bringing in good jobs would be great and is needed, but how do you make Kingsport an attractive place to work AND live? It’s almost as easy to commute from Johnson City, which has more to offer in just about every category.

    I definitely agree that wasteful spending needs to be cut, but what is the solution for attracting people to live in Kingsport, especially young people?

    • Luke says:

      My apologies Dave, I wrote Dan when I meant Dave. Sorry! I came back looking for a response, but haven’t seen anything yet.

      • Dave Clark says:

        I taught Strategy and Security Policy at West Point. Strategy is the allocation of limited resources to accomplish prioritized objectives in a competitive environment. That applies as much to municipal government as it does to Nations and Armies.

        We lack a real vision that is achievable. Saying that we want to be the best place to live work and play in NE TN is like saying you believe in truth justice and the American Way. Valid but distinctly unhelpful in deciding what we need to do.

        Until we truly decide what we want to be when we grow up (despite the fact that we are 100years old), we will flounder. You can’t get to your destination if you don’t know where and what it is.

        Because we do not have a coherent vision nor prioritized objectives that link our resources to the accomplishment of those objectives, we continue to fund “nice to have” items rather than critical items.

  7. Pat Houchens says:

    Finally someone with the intestinal fortitude to “tell it like it is”. Thanks Dave for going out on a limb and stating “the cold, hard facts”. The Pinnacle stands as a reminder of what Kingsport could have had. Our leaders missed the boat big time on that one.

  8. Wayne says:

    Kingsport residents do love their city. It is blasphemous to say anything negative about the city and it will only earn you scorn and derision if you point out the deficiencies and stagnation. However if people only want to look through their Kingsport-colored-glasses, they will fail to see that the city in 2017 is very similar to the city in 1957, minus the glass plant, Press, Holliston Mills, a larger Mead, Penn-Dixie, a much larger Eastman, and thousands of well-paying jobs that enabled families to raise their kids, send them to college, and see them go on to good careers elsewhere. Bike lanes, dog and centennial parks, flags and flowers along the streets, and insignificant increases in sales taxes are nice but they are superficial. Kingsport’s ability to move forward from the 1950’s into the 2010’s and 2020’s has passed. I loved the Kingsport I grew up in during the 40’s and 50’s and I still love it now but after moving back after a long absence I can see what has happened. It is sad Kingsport has let time and the world pass it by.