As a two-time transplant to our region – first in 1966 and then in 2016 – I have always felt this is a place of accomplishment. Perhaps, as a child, it was the exposure to John Fox, Jr.’s work and life story, or having the renowned Virginia McChesney as my piano teacher, or learning about U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers’ roots in Wise County, or watching the football great Carroll Dale carry his home in his heart. Despite the messages of the War on Poverty and the reality of the struggles in many corners of the region, then and now, when I was growing up, there was a fervent focus on achievement and appropriate ambition.
There was celebration, not pride. Perhaps today we are so afraid of getting above our raising that we neglect to amplify just what this region has meant to each of its states and the nation. Or stand upon our achievements for inspiration and emotional sustenance in the present day. Upon my re-entry in 2016, I was shocked to hear how much less we ponder and study the accomplishments of producers from every one of our counties, who made this region a force for much of the 20th century. In thinking about what they did, with much less than what we probably have, we do not have to reinvent the wheel.
Granted, we face an incredible challenge. The diaspora of native talent in search of fulfilling work. The need to absorb the impact of technology upon the industries that have been our stronghold. The evaporation of key industry sectors that have shaped our culture, not just our economy.
Exploring the underside of this challenge, we can cite five aspects of our reality that it is time to address. Workforce readiness and health. Education, from preschool through college. Traumatized children. Rural broadband deficiencies. The prevailing dependence, in thought and deed, upon large-scale employment that is literally futile in the short term without addressing the first four aspects.
What is the rest of our truth, our reality? We have advantages we can leverage. A robust network of educational institutions. Significant financial resources from state and federal coffers. Experienced government and business leaders. A growing acceptance that intra-regional competition is not cutting it. And: the growing fatigue, in the rest of the nation, with current urban and metropolitan experiences. People feel crowded, financially stressed despite healthy salaries, and emotionally empty. The right business partners will know how to plant here if they can present to their employees a contemporary lifestyle, offering well-rounded lifestyle options. But first, we must stabilize ourselves by focusing on what is reasonable to seek in business partners and opportunities – and most important, invite them to help us solve the problems we define.
Our ability to act is limited by one thing: a lack of shared focus fueled by territorialism and competition among ourselves, around ideas, resources and power [the wrong side of ambition]. It’s time now to take the inspiring talk of regionalism and put structure around it. Here is what I believe we can do, learning from the example of our forebears.
First, we invite opinion and perspective from all corners to identify industries and partners to pursue, setting goals we can measure and adjust rapidly. Second, we take quick inventory of what current money and initiatives we can apply to this purpose and we figure out how to integrate them – to achieve efficiency and measurable return-on-investment of government and private investment dollars. Third, we design and own the solutions to our problems, beginning with a focus on the specific industrial partners we want to attract and what they will need from us in mutually profitable partnership. We invite carefully-selected corporate partners to play ball right here, where they can make money if they focus their investments and not just hang around for the tax incentives. Fourth, we consider whether we are putting the marketing cart before the working horse. The processes we follow and the story we tell to position the region – in what has been called branding the region – are digestible only if we have something tangible to position. Pouring resources into the spinning of a yarn alone cannot change the game; it will, however, make us less credible to potential partners and investors.
We do have power, right here, right now. We can advocate for ourselves while we make it worth others’ while to invest here. Creating a shared, measurable business objective and identifying the leaders to follow in public-private partnership is where we begin.
This first appeared in The Business Journal of Tri-Cities Tennessee/Virginia. Coming next: restructuring a regional economic base.