We can be World Class

It pains me to watch us flog ourselves like some medieval flagellants. Certainly, our region is far from perfect; we suffer from many of the same ills as other rural areas. Yet, despite significant capabilities and a magnificent environment, we still believe ourselves somehow “less” than other communities. We are by far our own worst enemy.

We lack the self-confidence of more dynamic areas. We unfairly compare ourselves to other places. We long to be an Asheville or Greeneville, SC. They have “everything” we want: Shopping. Entertainment…Sophistication? We constantly attempt to emulate others we perceive as more successful.

We seem unwilling to rejoice in “who we are.” I’m not sure we even know who we are today. That would require a tough self-analysis that we seem unwilling to make. In that we are not unique.

We know who we have been. We were the Overmountain Men. Scotch-Irish. Fierce. Independent. Women hacking a living out of a rugged terrain and raising their children along the way. Hardscrabble and hardworking.

Somewhere lurking inside, those characteristics (and others melded into our cultural fabric by several hundred years of immigration and emigration) still reside waiting for an Ancestry.com DNA test to reveal who we really are.

We have significant opportunities to capitalize on our uniqueness.

The headquarters of Eastman, a Fortune 500 company is located in Kingsport. They, in partnership with Northeast State and other industries have created a unique training and apprenticeship program. ETSU is a major regional university with Medical and Pharmacy Schools and significant research capability. We are the Birthplace of Country Music and home of a renowned motor sports venue.

The creation of Ballad from the two previously cutthroat competitive healthcare systems has created a remarkable opportunity, one we have yet to fully embrace and exploit. The COPA (Certificate of Public Advantage) a much-maligned document, actually opens the door to significant improvement in the health of our population. We have the capability to become a recognized center of rural health innovation.

Yet, none of these touches on the truly significant opportunity that has emerged from the detritus of the pandemic and the turmoil surrounding the recent national change of power.

COVID has taught us much about the new economy. We really do not need to be crammed into an office to function. Remote working and communications can be handled online. While I have grown to “hate” Zoom meetings, they have greatly simplified the logistics of business. The importance of proximity has diminished, quality of location matters.

Likewise, cramped urban apartments hold less appeal when the ambiance of places like NY has become more like Alcatraz than the shining city that never sleeps. The political and social turmoil of these large urban areas is evident. Chicago has become a nightmare of violence and strife. At one point they raised all but two of the draw bridges separating the Loop, creating an insular moat around the downtown. Great for keeping unrest out, but it also prevented customers from entering the downtown.  This is a sad commentary on our society but highlights the relative stability and attractiveness of our region.

My brother, who has lived in Houston for decades, has decided to join us. His story is instructive. He wants out of the big city. He recently purchased a large tract of land and a rustic home. He found his “happy place.” It has the ambiance that he seeks, a location with beauty and serenity.

His story is not unique. A West Point classmate recently reached out for information on our area. He originally looked over the mountain at our “upper class” neighbor, Asheville, but found the area crowded and expensive. Do we really aspire to that? We have many of the same good characteristics, fewer of the bad and at a much lower cost. He is interested.

I would not want to wish the adversity many people have suffered over the past year on anyone, but we should recognize that in that dismal situation lays a golden opportunity, “if” we have the forethought to recognize it and more importantly, to act boldly.

I am working with a group to build a more robust higher-level entrepreneurial ecosystem (yeah, I used that word). We have been able to attract the interest of numerous successful early-stage companies. Several are working with us to integrate components of their operation into the economic fabric of our community and even physical relocation to the area.

Locally Opportunity Zones have driven high-quality development and attracted the interest of sophisticated external investment. The “opportunity” in our region is not solely confined to those zones.

Why do I say all of this? Don’t we already “get it?” Actually, I think not.

We are unique, not some cheap imitation of another community and we should stop trying to emulate the other guy. We must embrace who we are and mold that into who we want to become. We must have faith that we can build the future we want.

We should unabashedly set the standard. “World class in a rural setting.” That is the future to which we should aspire.

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