By Brad Hicks
Erwin officials on Monday received an update on a plan currently being developed to help guide local economic development in the near and distance future.
Tyler Engle, executive director of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County, and Tamera Parsons, an independent consultant engaged by the local EDB, were on hand at Monday’s meeting of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen to apprise the board on where the development of the Joint EDB’s strategic plan stands and what information has been gleaned thus far from efforts to form the plan.
Parsons advised the board the process of the plan’s development has been broken up into three phases. The first phase, she said, involves assessing where Unicoi County is as a whole in terms of economic development and identifying what the county is capable of doing on this front. The second phase entails forming a strategy to help determine the future direction of local economic development. The third phase involves thorough implementation planning to realize the outlined economic development goals, Parsons said.
The strategic plan is currently in its first phase, but Parsons said work on this portion of the plan is “winding down.” One component of this phase, according to Parsons, will be the collecting of public input.
Another component of the initial phase of the strategic plan was to complete a SWOT analysis, in which area officials had the opportunity to identify Unicoi County’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. A SWOT matrix was previously sent to officials across the county’s three governments and other officials to seek their input, and a summary of the SWOT analysis was provided to the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen during Monday’s meeting.
Strengths identified by officials included the citizens of the community and their strong work ethic, the area’s low crime rate, the county’s schools, Unicoi County’s history and culture, the county’s access to Interstate 26, the local natural beauty and opportunities for outdoor recreation, local broadband access, and improvements made to the downtown districts of the county’s two municipalities.
Identified weaknesses included a lack of branding for Unicoi County, a decreasing number of jobs, comparatively smaller overall revenue, a feeling of idleness with the county, a lack of businesses outside of the towns of Erwin and Unicoi, and slow movement to take advantage of tourism, local assets and other opportunities, and a lack of tax base in the incorporated parts of the county.
Opportunities, which are areas that the county could work to take advantage of, included tourism, local infrastructure, the outdoors and natural beauty of the area, the county’s location relative to surrounding towns and cities, regional med-tech services, and regional efforts related to economic development.
Threats, which are items Parsons said could impact the county’s ability to reach its goals if unaddressed, included the feeling of passivity and idleness, the fact that communities neighboring Unicoi County have a “growth mentality” and a plan, an aging workforce, a “revenue bleed,” meaning money that could be spent locally is being spent in surrounding areas, and availability of medical services in Unicoi County.
Parsons said the second phase will help identify short- and long-term economic development goals for Unicoi County. The third phase, she said, will help identify specific actions and activities are needed to meet the short-term and long-term goals.
Parsons said there is a “short and very aggressive” timeline for putting the plan together. She said the EDB hopes to see Phase I completed over the remainder of this month and throughout April.
“This is kind of where you have to slow down so you can speed up later,” Parsons said of the first phase. “If you do a really good job here and have a really good foundation, we should be able to move quickly in the next two phases.”
Local economic development officials hope to begin the second phase of the plan in May, during which time a strategy will be formed to achieve short-term and long-term priorities. It is hoped that the third phase will get underway this June.
The expected outcomes of the work to develop the strategic plan, Parsons said, include the development of a short-term and long-term economic development vision for the county, the development of a tangible strategic plan that can serve as a checklist for these goals, and an action plan to communicate the strategic plan and its progress with officials and the public.
“I think that our end result is going to be very pleasing to all three governments and the (Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County),” Engle said of the strategic plan.
The strategic plan has been a topic of conversation during recent meetings of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County. At that panel’s January meeting, Engle said the combination of the strategic plan and a comprehensive land use plan would provide the county with better direction on how it should proceed the moves related to economic development in upcoming years and over the course of the next two decades.
At the local EDB’s March meeting, it was announced that the state approved the use of $10,000 in Governor’s ThreeStar money the county received late last year for the development of the strategic plan.
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The Erwin BMA on Monday also approved the road closures that will allow the second Erwin Great Outdoors Spring Festival to be held in downtown Erwin. That event is set to take place on May 6.
Jamie Rice, president of the RISE Erwin group and the town’s communications specialist, said Main Avenue from First Street to the corner of Love Street and Elm Avenue would need to be closed for the event. A stage will be placed at the intersection of Tucker Street and Main Avenue.
Rice said the street closures will begin around 5:30 p.m. on May 5 and continue through 6 p.m. on May 6 for the vendors along Gay Street up to Elm Avenue. The block around Capitol Cinema will remain closed until around 8 p.m. on May 6, as the local chapter of Trout Unlimited will be sponsoring a showing of the International Fly Fishing Film Festival at the theater on that date.
“We are going to extend the music and the food and the beer garden until 8 p.m. on Saturday evening per the request of a lot of feedback from community last year that they wanted it to go a little bit later in the evening,” Rice said.
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Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff also discussed proposed amendments to the town’s code pertaining to alcoholic beverages. The first pertains to the downtown area. Currently, there is a provision in the town’s code that prohibits a permit for the sale of beer to be issued to an individual or establishment located within 200 feet of “any established church or school building.” Previously, Erwin officials had discussed the possibility of amending this code in the downtown district, which would allow breweries or restaurants serving alcohol to set up shop in the downtown area.
The second proposed amendment pertains to special events in which organizers wish to serve alcohol in open areas.
“Currently right now, there is some language in the code that says the board has discretion, we’ve talked about it quite often that we really need to put it in the code specifically,” Rosenoff said.
Rosenoff said he will draft the proposed amendments into ordinance form to present to the town’s Beverage Board at a later date.
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In other business, the BMA approved:
• The closure of a section of Gay Street from the corner of Main Avenue to First Tennessee Bank as part of the Unicoi County 8th Grade Banquet, which will be held at the Bramble on May 19 from 5:30-10 p.m.
• The reappointment of Sarah Shults as Erwin’s municipal judge for a one-year term.
• A lease agreement between the town and the Unicoi County Family YMCA for management of the Fishery Park swimming pool for this calendar year. Per the agreement, the town will pay $23,000 to the YMCA for management of the pool. Mayor Doris Hensley said it would cost the town around twice this amount if the town had opted to manage the pool itself.
• A bid from Bowman & Sons Construction to complete the improvement of a culvert near the intersection of Church and Union streets. The bid is for $24,988, which includes labor, materials and equipment. Rosenoff said the company was the only one of the three submitting bids to meet the minimum requirements outlined in the bid specifications. Erwin Public Works Director Riki Forney said the town did budget for the project, adding Bowman & Sons will have 45 days to complete the work once the company has been issued the notice to proceed.