By MARINA WATERS Kingsport Times News
Dennis Phillips is no stranger to economic development in Northeast Tennessee.
But now, as the CEO of NETNHub, he’s tackling what might be his most challenging task yet: bringing the region — and its county and city leaders — together with one voice.
“That’s the biggest challenge we’ve got,” Phillips said, “getting people in government to trust each other enough to work together. This could be the biggest win-win for economic development.”
This year, Phillips was named the first-ever CEO of NETNHub, a group of local stakeholders aiming to support and grow economic development across Northeast Tennessee’s eight-county region. Phillips served as the mayor of Kingsport for 10 years, helping bring projects like the Aquatic Center, Brickyard Park and Academic Village to Kingsport during his tenure. With NETNHub, he aims to streamline local efforts in the name of economic development.
That all starts by identifying land suitable for industrial growth.
“The thing we all face is terrain,” Phillips said. “West Tennessee and Middle Tennessee are growing at a rate of about 20% (over 10 years), and we’re growing at a rate of about 2% or less. Our terrain is a big factor in that. If the Ford Motor Company wanted 1,000 acres to locate in East Tennessee, it’s impossible to happen.”
NETNHub also aims to recruit new industry and work with exist- ing industry to develop leads.
The 22-person advisory board will include subcommittees devoted to various sectors such as work- force development, tourism and economic development. That way, Phillips said, local stakeholders can use their connections to support the region’s development.
“In my opinion, if I call Gov. Lee, I’m not sure when he’ll call me back, if ever,” Phillips said. “If Mark Costa with Eastman calls Gov. Lee, if he’s available, he’s probably going to talk to him right then. That’s where I think the private sector can help.”
Local industrial leaders have committed $1 million over three years toward NETNHub, Phillips said. Now the regional group looks to add support from Northeast Tennessee’s county and city leaders.
“The big problem you have is get- ting people to believe this is going to be a fair and equitable situation,” Phillips said. “We need to have the attitude that a high tide raises all ships.”
The NETNHub plan includes the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership — which covers Carter, Washington and Unicoi counties, as well as Johnson City — and the NETWORKS-Sullivan Partnership — which covers Sullivan County, Bluff City, Bristol and Kingsport. Phillips said NETNHub would act as the overarching entity.
“The reason I think this is so important is right now, for example, NETWORKS and NETREP are limited to their own counties. I don’t want to miss an opportunity to locate something to Unicoi, Carter County, or wherever, because we aren’t working together. … We are not trying to replace anyone in any city or county that is working in economic development. We want to complement them. We want to help any way we can.”
Workforce development is also a focus for NETNHub. Phillips said supporting programs like the Tennessee College for Applied Technology in Elizabethton is needed to grow the local workforce and add well-paying jobs with benefits to the region.
“We need to work closely with our existing industries and our trade schools,” Phillips said. “An official at Eastman told me he was concerned (the region’s workforce) can’t fill the vacancies of their retirees every year. We have to be able to fill the needs of our existing industries in this area, from Eastman to A.O. Smith Water Company.”
Phillips and NETNHub also want to make it clear that the state “doesn’t stop at Knoxville.” That goal, Phillips said, hinges on the region’s ability to work together with “one voice.”
“We want to make sure in the state of Tennessee we are recognized as an area,” Phillips said. “We need to speak to our legislators and governor with one voice concerning economic development.”
“Trust is something you can lose overnight, but it takes a long time to build it. What we’re asking people is to build some trust so that we can show that this would work.”
For more information, go to https://www.netnhub.com/.