What will they think of us at Kingsport’s Bicentennial?

Kingsport is in the process of celebrating its centennial birthday. Congratulations to us! And, more important, a hearty “thank you” to all those who, over the past century, have believed in, worked for and invested in this community. We have much to be proud of and, with God’s blessing, much to look forward to.

The founder’s like George L Carter and John B Dennis, et al had a vision: to build a planned, industrial community. They also had the fortitude to bring it to fruition.

They hired a renowned land planner from Harvard, John Nolan, and Kingsport became known as the “Model City,” indicative of the innovative, interwoven design. It was the first “thoroughly diversified, professionally planned, and privately financed city.”

It created what amounted to fledgling zoning requirements by organizing the town into sections for commerce, churches, housing and industry. Most of the land on the river was devoted to industry, something our current activity is trying to overcome. As part of this plan, Kingsport built some of the initial traffic roundabouts in the America, a feature which transportation planners are resurrecting.

The industries took advantage of the location and abundant natural resources to build an interlocking web of commerce that fed each other and created a synergy that propelled the city forward.

What we lacked in terms of government subsidy and support (federal facilities, agencies, and a state university), we made up for with pure unbridled capitalism and entrepreneurial spirit. Visionary industrialists were willing to put their money and effort to work to grow an industrial base, all the while building a community to support the process.

Everyone prospered. Businesses and entrepreneurs made money. Citizens gained jobs, built homes and raised families. The community built facilities: banks and stores, schools and a hospital. Kingsport became the retail hub of the region and gave back to those that helped it grow.

Kingsport was truly created to be a model for the future. And, the future is today.

If we were a created as a planned industrial community, what have we become a hundred years on?

In her book, Kingsport, Tennessee: A Planned American City, author Margaret Wolfe states…”a loss of vision and a decline in the quality of leadership plague contemporary Kingsport, and, like other American industrial strongholds, it is buffeted by the winds of the high-tech revolution and the changing world economy.”

This statement made me bristle, after all, as a former BMA member, I was one of those whose leadership has apparently left us wanting. I want to believe that I have done more. Yet, in the quite of my own reflection, I must admit being “part of the problem.”

For all of our accomplishments, we must acknowledge that we are no longer driven by the type of entrepreneurial business leadership that founded our community. We could not even drum up a second contender for the last mayoral race.

Furthermore, economic forces have radically changed the environment. Global pressures have begun to separate the interests of our surviving industries from the community. National economic trends create a “giant sucking sound” from Middle Tennessee, drawing in most of the new business and population growth.

In part as a consequence of our lack of private sector participation, we have ceded our future to government technocrats and bureaucracy. By design, our strategy is driven (and funded) by the City government not the private sector. This is but a microcosm of what has happened at the National level. It also creates a myopic view that pits Kingsport against our sister cities and the region as a whole.

I fear that in our single-minded focus on what we have done right, we brush aside that which is troubling and may be an impediment to our future prosperity. We seem too focused on the visible easy things rather than the harder necessary things. Unfortunately, this has served to alienate government from the population. Much of what happens simply does not make sense and our leaders fall back on the “trust me” argument rather than rational-logical explanation.

Yes, we should rightfully celebrate all that we have done and become, but perhaps (deep down inside), we should temper our festivity. We should likewise acknowledge our travails as much as we celebrate the successes. We should be cognizant of the macro-trends that may mitigate against our progress. In a world of scarce resources and what seems like unrestricted competition, we must connect the subject and the verb, to more carefully ensure that we focus on critical prioritized objectives.

Sadly, this commentary will be viewed by many as overly pessimistic at a time when celebration is in the air. There is no wrong time to recognize the truth. And, until we can handle that in a constructive way, we cannot build a strategy and forge a consensus that will build the future we so desperately want.

Let’s celebrate our heritage! But, I wonder what those at the bicentennial, a hundred years hence, will think of us today?

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