It is time for a real change in leadership in Kingsport
Kingsport’s current mayor John Clark recently announced that he won’t seek another term. In the recent Times News interview, he was asked whether he planned to stay in Kingsport. His answer was both genuine and illuminating. In part his response was, “My concern about going into the private sector … what I’m looking at would most likely take me out of the area.” This hit the nail on the head.
Kingsport’s major deficiency is a substantive lack of economic opportunity. We are not creating jobs of sufficient quality to attract new residents and the ones we have created do not provide a path of upward mobility and prosperity to our current residents. Yet we wonder why we are not growing.
Sadly, while he and other city leaders have been in a position to affect that situation, they have squandered the opportunity. Instead, they focused on questionable projects, nominally designed to improve “quality of life,” which have made the city a marginally nicer place to live. They have also wasted public resources in ill-advised efforts to “buy” respectability for our community through egregious tax subsidies.
In the meantime, Kingsport is well on its way to becoming the “third” of the Tri-cities, if it is not already there.
Despite decades of effort, we have not broken the code on how to generate more jobs. In this respect the statistical data is somewhat deceptive. The region has a very low unemployment rate, which would indicate a robust job market, yet we seem to see little of the economic boom that it ought to generate.
Why is there such a discrepancy? The answer is as simple as it is disturbing.
Over the past quarter century, we have seen the unraveling of the interwoven planned industrial base that was once the hallmark of Kingsport. Changes in technology and economic globalization of business further disconnected major industry as the driver of job-growth. Myopic competition between two competing health systems and detrimental governmental policies have devastated the medical sector. In their place we have tax-subsidized retail and hospitality jobs.
In a nutshell, we have swapped well-paying careers for tenuous $10 per hour semi-skilled jobs. This has had a devastating and long-lasting impact on our community.
Perhaps we have begun to improve the quality of life, but that unto itself is insufficient reason to live here. People do not relocate because we have a carrousel or paint murals on abandoned buildings (which we have done); they relocate because they can find a good job. Virtually nothing in the now well-established OneKIngsport plan was designed to facilitate job creation.
I have often said that, “Our greatest export is our children.” My brood got a great education and left. Some do return, to work in family businesses or at Eastman. Others stay because of family ties. But for too many, the mayor’s statement rings true, that what they are looking for will most likely take them out of the area. Countless numbers of those who remain find marginal work that allows them to get by, but not prosper.
There has been progress, but not where we need it. Over the past decade, a significant expansion of the city establishment has taken place. If bureaucracy was the measure of success, we would be at the top. Kingsport is an efficiently run city, reaping awards for being so. That is not the same as a prosperous one. Now city government is moving into the largest building in downtown Kingsport. The private sector sold it for a song after years on the market. It was the best they could do, and that speaks volumes about the economy in Kingsport.
Drive down our main thoroughfares. Much of Center Street is vacant and Broad Street dark. Three of the four buildings at its intersection are empty and a local developer recently announced the closing of the Banq, a truly unique venue space. Our community could not support its own.
We have been through several iterations of growth and decline in our city center. Local entrepreneurs have struggled valiantly against fierce headwinds, always cheered on by a city staff and established elite who are out of touch with economic reality. The downtown is in the throes of yet another breakdown. We will see if the new massively-subsidized apartments can arrest that trajectory.
Arguably, we have made Kingsport a nicer place to live, but we have not given people a reason to move here. Until we change our focus, our relative decline will continue.
The chance to elect new leadership may enhance our opportunities. However, given the current likely contenders, I am not sanguine that this will occur. “Steady as she goes” simply drives us harder into the ice berg.
It is time for a shake-up (actually, it is long past due). I have spoken with several Millennials and have encouraged them to organize. They, not my generation, are our best hope. I implore them to get involved. As the new PlayStation commercial emphatically calls, “Wake up! Wake up! The time has come!”