We are in the midst of another “Me too” movement
There is another “me too” movement and our region is squarely in the middle of it. This is not about sexual harassment, it is about continuously being a follower. We always seem to be behind the trend, watching more forward-looking communities grow while we hop around on the sidelines yelling, “Hey, look at us. Me too.”
Rather than getting ahead of the curve; we are peddling to catch up, to get what others have, but only after the wave has crested and it seems safe to follow along. We are stuck years behind the healthy growing communities in our ideas, capabilities and infrastructure.
In 2010, Chattanooga installed ultra-high-speed broadband and proclaimed itself the “GigCity.” Years before Google Fiber, it was the first city in the United States to have a citywide gigabit-per-second fiber network installed by the city’s utility board. It was a marketing ploy as much as a practical tool for business. What made it unique was the fact that it was available to the entire community.
This level of internet access, and substantially faster, has become common place. Having it does not make you exceptional; it makes you the exception (and not in a good way) if you do not have it. In fact, we had similar capability if more limited access. In 2017 the Mayor proudly proclaimed, “we’re GigKingsport.” We were not unique, we simply announced that we had caught up to the rest of the world. “Hey, look at us. Me too.”
A similar scenario is playing out in Southwest Virginia as they debate whether to install so-called “dark fiber.” It is expensive; it creates potential capability and is only “lit” when customers need the capacity. Broadband capability is critical. A regional executive put it this way, “The bottom line is the need for rural areas to have the same access to high speed internet (broadband) as other areas. We only need to look around to see what the effect of lack of traditional transportation and infrastructure cost our region in competing for jobs in the 20th Century.” All of this is true; however, we should recognize that gaining a necessary infrastructure is not sufficient reason for a business to locate here. There must be something compelling, something beyond the minimum essentials, that brings them here.
It is not just in technology that we lag. Most recently, Kingsport has tried to catch up with housing by subsidizing high-end development and massive apartment construction because that will make us like Johnson City (who is myopically our arch rival). One might reasonably ask the question, why anyone would move to an area that looks like someplace else? They already have that choice, why move to our community?
The fact that we have believed that any of this was special is a telling commentary about how much of a herd animal we have become. We are not leader; we are a follower. And, like followers in a herd, we somehow trust that if we “tuck up into the pack” we will be safe from marauding predators. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The leaders don’t get picked off, the guys at the back, those trying hard to be just like everyone else, are often the ones that get cut from the herd and eaten.
We are getting eaten by other areas that are more vibrant than our own. Some factors are beyond our control. But there is a common denominator: they have not prospered by copying someone else’s formula, rather they succeed by taking advantage of some characteristic or capability that sets them apart.
To be fair, we have tried. In the early 2000’s, a group established the “Educate and Grow” program that allowed residents of Sullivan County and Kingsport to attend North East State tuition free. This program was subsequently adopted by Knoxville and the State of Tennessee. We were the initiators but could not manage to capture that initiative and capitalize on it. We could not follow-through.
Another program, the Regional Center for Applied Technology is training cutting edge manufacturing skills to our workforce. Although, the program overwhelmingly focusses on existing industry needs, it has a huge un-tapped potential. Again, we have failed to capitalize on the foundation this has laid. Several years ago, Kingsport had an opportunity to create a program to promote 3D-printing and advance manufacturing start-up businesses. We should have boldly stood up and announced that “Kingsport would become the advanced manufacturing center of the mid-South.”
We had the potential and it would have made us unique. However, it would have required us to refocus our efforts. Perhaps pet projects like the upper deck on the DB stadium would have to have been forgone. They were not. We now have a very nice athletic facility and a fledgling maker space, neither of which will attract new business or create an incentive for entrepreneurial growth. Clearly, this is an example of an opportunity lost through a lack of vision and execution on the part of our leadership.
Let me be clear. We have a wonderful community in which to live: beautiful countryside, good healthcare, nice amenities and generally low taxes. To someone, not dependent on this region to make a living (i.e., a retiree) this is paradise. However, for a young professional (beyond family or a couple of large industries), there is little compelling reason to stay, much less come.
Our situation is not for want of trying; it is for a lack of vision and execution. I do not know how we promote and encourage visionary leadership. A few that have tried, but they always faced fierce headwinds from the prevailing culture. It is difficult to promote entrepreneurship when we are so risk averse. Perhaps it is simply not possible in a region so steeped in the status quo.
So why continue the critique? Because, for far too long, we have been dishonest with ourselves. You cannot solve a problem you won’t admit even exists. Either we accept who we are and stop pretending we can be someone else (and stop wasting taxpayer money) or we find a truly unique proposition that we can leverage into a brand and a reality. Playing “me too” will never make us relevant to the outside world.