By Richard Rourk
There’s strength in numbers, or that was the prevailing theory when Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely joined six other county mayors in a recent historic visit to Nashville to meet with Gov. Bill Lee as well as several other state officials to discuss regional concerns.
Evely was joined by Johnson County Mayor Mike Taylor, Carter County Mayor Patty Woodby, Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable, Hawkins County Mayor Jim Lee, Greene County Mayor Kevin Morrison and Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy during the May visit.
“This was the first time a delegation like this got together and went to Nashville to discuss regional issues,” Evely told The Erwin Record.
According to Venable, the visit was well received and each mayor got time with Lee, as well as with Comptroller Jason Mumpower, Commissioner of Finance and Administration Butch Ealey, Commissioner of the Department of Corrections Tony Parker, Commissioner of Tourism Mark Ezell and representatives from the Department of Economic and Community Development, including Assistant Commissioner of Rural Development Sammie Arnold to discuss concerns. “Each mayor had an opportunity to discuss projects that are important to their counties with both the governor and commissioners,” Mayor Venable said. “It was very significant that we had so many of our legislators meet with the group to discuss county-specific issues that benefit the region as a whole.”
The delegation got attention in Nashville, but nerves were quickly calmed after the meetings took place.
“We have a lot of projects up here that will have an impact across county lines,” said Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy. “When we approached various offices about meeting with us, it raised some eyebrows. But we approached it with an agenda of supporting each other in various projects, and that made a huge impact. I think seeing the seven of us walk into a room made an impact, but seeing us all actively supporting each other is what left an impression.”
There were many items discussed over the two day visit, including regional tourism. “We covered a lot of ground in two short days,” Mayor Woodby said. “Our tourism discussions, while targeted at bringing in groups for specific events initially, can only help showcase all our region has to offer. We want people to see our region and want to come back.”
Evely said that one of the local items discussed was an update on the Rocky Fork State Park and the proposed Visitor’s Center. “COVID had slowed the Rocky Fork State Park Visitor’s Center project down,” Evely said. “It looks like we may see some movement on that project in the near future.”
Tourism and a need for a mental health and drug rehabilitation program were major talking points for regionalism during the visit. “We need a facility that would be a transitional place for inmates that need help reentering the community,” Evely said. “A program in place could cut down on the amount of people we have that are being incarcerated as repeat offenders. I know Governor Lee has been focused on prison reform so he seemed on board.”
Some of the other issues discussed was the recent loss of Johnson County’s probation office. “In Johnson County, we lost our probation office,” Mayor Taylor said. “Addressing that issue with the Commissioner of the Department of Correction was huge.”
The delegation left Nashville feeling as though their voices were heard. “This trip made an impact,” Mayor Lee said. “We brought up issues that need to get back on track, like funding for radio communications to keep our law enforcement and first responders connected on calls. We want them to remember we’re up here in Northeast Tennessee, and we can make a trip to Nashville any time they forget us.”
Evely and company are already discussing a return visit in the future. “I’ve spoken with the other mayors about future trips,” Evely said. “Everyone seemed receptive to future group visits. We have the annual day on the hill where we get to discuss local issues but we really had more time with this visit and covered a broader range of topics.”