We need to be realistic about regionalism if it is to succeed

There is another fledgling push towards regionalism. I applaud the concept. It is too long in coming even if the forces of inertia mitigate against what is undoubtedly the tide of the future.

It is asinine for a small rural region like ours to continue to pull itself apart. Three small towns, one split in half by a state line, are fighting against each other to get “their share” of a (not-so-large) pie. Often it seems we would rather lose a deal than let the other guy “win.” I am confident that we have been overlooked by some business prospects (at least in part) because we appear too small, too fractured, and too incoherent.

Why do we continue to do what is obviously against our collective best interest?

First, we must recognize that the “collective interest” is not synonymous with “individual interest.” This concept is easy to understand. Paying taxes for new schools may be in the community’s interest, but if you home school your kids, it likely is not something you would freely do with your money. The same is true with political entities.

Even if we accept the notion that, “in the long run,” everyone is better off (based on the adage that “a rising tide lifts all boats”), we must admit that not all boats rise to the same level. One might ask, “What matters more, absolute increase or relative position?” If I fall behind my neighbor, I may not perceive the value of the gain I actually get.

Perhaps the most significant impetus to the petty competition rests in our situs-based tax system: location matters (a lot). If a store opens across the line in another municipality, they get a significantly greater share of the benefit: property taxes, sales taxes, etc.

This is a fact that we must accept. If regionalism is ever to take hold, we must honestly accept that there will always be areas of conflict and competition. Our political leaders ought to have to the courage to look their local counterpart in the eye and say, “When it comes to retail, I will fight you tooth and nail to get the deal. I will not cooperate, period…Now that we have that out of the way, where can we work together?”

To be fair, there is some of that, but not much. We shake hands and pretend to be friends, then stab each other in the back. I worked on a project to attract a foreign investor and accidently stumbled on our sister city wooing them in secret (at the very same time). What must they think of this provincial attitude? At a minimum, outsiders get to play us off against each other.

Some myopic leaders are openly hostile to their counterparts. The current rhetoric out of Kingsport over school funding is exemplary. Kingsport cut the heart out of the Sullivan North and South school districts through annexation removing a huge hunk of their education funding, then lambasts the county for finding a legal solution that cuts the city out of other revenue. Zero empathy on either side! This situation build distrust and tends to poison other relationships

The area in which we suffer the most is business recruiting and development. Several years ago, I was a panelist at the Governor’s Economic Development Conference. The Northeast Tennessee contingent (well almost) hosted a social with the State leadership. Washington County and Johnson City were not involved. Each played their own game.

Do we not think that the state economic developers are scratching their head at such folly? It is ludicrous. Yet, our elected officials simply refuse to cooperate in a meaningful way. It is a self-inflicted injury and showcases our parochial pettiness to the outside world. It must stop if we are to grow our economy.

However, we must also understand that regionalism is not without cost.

Our current prosperity (meager as it is) is based on insular benefit. When you land a deal, there are significant positive yields. Regionalism may require us to cede some local benefit for the prosperity of the whole. That cost will not be distributed evenly.

In addition, the transition from discrete to common advantage will likely result in some decline or at least stagnation until it is implemented and takes hold.

I would liken the process to my experience at West Point. The individuals in the entering classes are pretty capable, often sports team captains, valedictorians, and student body leaders. The first thing that happens is that they are broken down; their individual identity is removed. Some fight it but ultimately, they realize that you need others to succeed. Rebuilding the group into a coherent unit can begin.

However, during the initial phases of the process, the “whole” is less than the sum of the original individual parts. Ultimately, the new group is much stronger, but that takes time, effort and resources. In the interim, there is a degradation in performance. Before we start down the path to regionalism, we must accept that and align our expectations accordingly.

Throughout the process, there will be winners and losers. In our circumstances, the early beneficiaries will likely be large regional intuitions. For example, it will certainly be easier for the merged hospital system to “sell” consolidation and contraction to any specific locality under the rubric of “regionalism.” But let there be no mistake, somebody will initially come out on the short end even if the long-run effect is positive. Expect it.

Do the painful aspects of developing a regional identity and common focus outweigh the benefits? I firmly believe that in aggregate, the benefit is worth the cost. However, our leaders need to be honest about the sacrifices. Don’t oversell what your can’t deliver. Furthermore, we all need realistic expectations about the pain involved in the process.

If we can face the truth, we may just be able to move our “region” forward.

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