Why don’t we use what we have?
Sunday night I attended a concert at the back portico of the MeadowView Conference Center. It was affiliated with the Tennessee Big Shots, the regional World Long Drive golf championships, which was a magnificent event brought here by the hard work of the Kingsport Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (KCVB) and sponsored by Ballad Health. It was broadcast live on the Golf Channel Monday night. Not only has it shown a spotlight on our region, it provided over $4 million in television exposure.
The concert was a great evening. It showcased some local talent and was an innovative use of a facility we already have. In fact, it looked like the space was made for event. Afterwards, I spoke with several people who thought we should host other similar actives there. I join them in that notion.
Is there something new afoot? Is it time to think outside the box?
Given the current environment, our lack of economic growth and by implication of organic tax revenue generation, perhaps we should look at “adaptive reuse” of existing facilities and capabilities. Instead of a desire to build something new, at significant tax-payer expense, we should look at ways to transform and use what we already have. This would allow us to “keep our powder dry” and use what capital we can muster for something truly important rather than dispersing it in dribs and drabs (as we have seen in the past).
In this respect, I believe the Marriott staff has made significant efforts over the summer, not just with the recent concert. They initiated a wonderful Tuesday evening series on their back patio, with music and food. This area is probably the nicest outdoor space in Kingsport, an under-appreciated gem in the community. It was a fledgling attempt, but I hope one that will build momentum in the future. It is also a concrete example of how we might begin to reinvent ourselves from the inside; take what we have and find new and innovative ways to use it to improve the community.
Ongoing efforts to find a way to utilize our river front are also to be lauded. The sad historic legacy of our economic heritage is that industry dominated the water front, something that other communities have found to be tourist economic drivers. One has only to look at the transformation of the French Broad River along the Asheville River Arts District to see what could happen. Formerly industrial properties have been transformed into restaurants, bars and unique outdoor spaces. We are not they, but the concept is applicable.
Unfortunately, we have not taken the broader view of things in the region. We don’t always connect the subject and the verb; align all of the components towards a single purpose. For example, our sewage treatment plant also sits along the developable part of the riverfront. A number of years ago, Kingsport renovated the plant, but did not “cap” it. As a result, a heavy “odor” sometimes wafts down the breeze on hot sultry summer afternoons to despoil the type of day you’d want to spend on the water.
Likewise, there was a piece of property that went up for sale just above the Holston Army Ammunition Plant, where the use of the river is terminated for security reasons. Had the city purchased the property, we could have created an exit-point for water sports, which would have optimized the useable stretch of the river. As it is, waterborne activity has a very small area in which it can operate.
Simply wanting something to be does not make it so. It will only work if it is part of coherent whole.
There was also the opportunity to purchase the old Baptist Camp on the south side of Bays Mountain for a song. It had a lodge and hostel facilities in addition to connecting the top to the base of the mountain. It was an opportunity to create world class mountain-biking trails and other activities that would have capitalized on the already magnificent city park. So close, yet still out of our grasp.
Likewise, there are opportunities to promote the growth of new businesses as well as tourism and quality of life. The training facilities we have built in the Academic Village downtown are similarly under-utilized capabilities. The RCAM (Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing) has immense potential. Rather than simply providing a subsidized training facility for the existing large industries, it could also provide the foundation for gestating start-up companies. Other facilities like the Inventor Center are small-scale pieces of the puzzle, but at this critical juncture, we need to think big. Kingsport should consolidate and focus its organic economic development activities towards making itself the advanced manufacturing entrepreneurial hub of the Southeast. It is true to our heritage. It capitalizes on previous investments. It just makes sense.
As it is, we have some of the pieces, but they don’t always add up to a coherent whole. We seem congenitally unable to grasp the entirety of a concept and create a strategic approach to bringing potentially great ideas to fruition. We are often penny-wise and pound-foolish. We don’t fully invest ourselves in promising programs (for which our conservative nature is a root cause), then we seem to panic and want to splurge on some “build-it-and-they-will-come” project in the vain hope something will happen.
We need to give a more significant “purpose” to the investments we have previously made and the programs we have built. There is much to work with and I hope our new leadership will help the community get out of the box and see what it could become. Therein lies the path to potential prosperity and growth.