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Economic Development Board votes to join regional partnership

By Brad Hicks

The Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County has opted to join forces with surrounding counties in an effort to boost region-wide economic development.

The board’s unanimous vote on Friday, Aug. 26, to join the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Development Partnership was only one discussion that took place during a busy meeting at the Town of Unicoi’s Visitor Information Center.

With its vote, the local economic development board will contribute a total of $75,000 to the NTREDP over an 18-month period. Twenty-five thousands dollars will be provided for the period from December of this year to June 2017, and the remaining $50,000 will be provided for the period from July 2017 to June 2018.

According to the Washington County Economic Development Council’s website, the WCEDC Board voted in May to approve the structure for an economic development partnership with Carter and Unicoi counties.

The NTREDP, which would be staffed by the WCEDC, aims to pool the economic development efforts of each entity involved into a single, organized structure. Officials feel this would serve to benefit the region in a number of ways, including landing more projects that would benefit the area as a whole.

WCEDC CEO Mitch Miller was present at Friday’s meeting to discuss the NTREDP and what would come with Unicoi County’s commitment. He said a regional partnership between Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties had been around two years in the making. He added that economies are regional, and that a “win for Unicoi County” is also a “win for Washington County.”

“What we’ve done over that two-year period is really look at and outline the program of work, what we can do and what we would like to do working jointly together, collaborating together, as one unified voice,” Miller said.

This NTREDP program of work, or the assistance that will be provided to entities involved, includes the support of existing business located in communities involved in the partnership, new business recruitment, internal and external marketing and asset development. Miller said Unicoi County has a “gem” as far as new business recruitment is concerned with  Erwin’s ownership of the Morgan Insulation property. He also said Unicoi County’s various outdoor recreation opportunities, such as the Pinnacle Fire Tower Trail, could be marketed to a wider audience, potentially drawing more visitors to the area.

“It’s going to mean a lot to the growth of this organization to have Unicoi County at that table,” Miller said.

Miller also covered the NTREDP’s five-year program of work. He said an annual budget of $1.1 million has been proposed for the partnership and that it would operate as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit organization. Miller also said NTREDP has set some goals including the creation of 3,750 new primary jobs for the region, bringing capital investments totaling more than $100 million to the region, and the establishment of a regional business park.

Carter County, Washington County, Johnson City and Jonesborough had all agreed to join the partnership prior to Friday’s vote by the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County.

Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch, Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch and Erwin Utilities General Manager and Unicoi County EDB Chairman Lee Brown were among those who voiced their support of Unicoi County joining the partnership.

“I think this $75,000 for the next year-and-a-half is money well-spent,” Hensley said.

Brown said there has previously been collaboration among counties throughout the region, but these counties have never before been able to come together under a structured organization.

“I think it’s an opportunity that we need to move forward with,” Brown said. “We’ve got the opportunity to be in on the ground floor and we’ve got a seasoned staff over there to draw from and, I think, would work to benefit our community going forward.”

Brown also advised the board that East Tennessee State University’s contract with the county’s EDB is set to expire at the end of this calendar year. It was this contract that brought in Tish Oldham, who is employed by ETSU’s Office of Community Outreach, to serve as executive director of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County.

Brown said Oldham will remain in Unicoi County for the next two years to focus on special projects within Unicoi County rather than the administration and daily duties of being the local EDB’s executive director.

“The good thing is Tish is not going anywhere,” Brown said. “She’s going to be right here in Unicoi County and continue to work on different projects going forward, but our arrangement, as it is today, would expire with ETSU on Dec. 31.”

Even though Unicoi County’s EDB has opted to join the NTREDP, the local board would be maintained. The board opted on Friday to appoint a search committee that will be tasked with finding a new executive director to replace Oldham. That committee will be made up of Erwin Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff, Town of Unicoi City Recorder Mike Housewright, and EDB members Tony Parsley, Mark Lafever and Richard Millenbach.

Oldham also provided the board with information on several grants and programs the county has recently received. She called the awards “unprecedented,” as the county received eight of the nine grants and programs for which it applied. 

The grants and programs include:

• A $50,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Business Enhancement Grant to assist with the use of land around the county’s Interstate 26 exits, planning for Erwin’s downtown gateways, and identification of agribusiness/agrtiourism opportunities in south Unicoi County related to the area’s heirloom apple crop.

• A $1,000 Tennessee Valley Authority Economic Development grant for Main Street organizational planning and implementation opportunities.

• An approximately $300,000 TVA InvestPrep Program grant to be used for the demolition of the Morgan Insulation site, excluding the silo.

• The county’s selection for The State of Tennessee’s Select TN Property Evaluation Plan, which will provide the county with analysis and planning information concerning potential industrial property.

• The state’s Three-Star Activity Plan Report, which is required for eligibility to receive Community Development Block Grant funding, Fasttrack program assistance, and other incentive programs.

• A $10,000 Three-Star Tier 2 and Tier 3 Counties Grant to be used for a financial and accounting management training program involving Unicoi County, Erwin and the Town of Unicoi.

• A $20,000 State of Tennessee Tourism Enhancement Grant to be used for the development and implementation of a strategic tourism plan that includes an electronic way-finding kiosk.

• A $3,440 Tennessee Arts Commission Grant for a Flag Pond fiddler’s convention to be held in conjunction with Rocky Fork.