NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership 2020 Annual Report

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Letter from the Chairman FINDING THE GOOD WHERE YOU CAN

Whatever Goals You Had Going Into 2020 Were Likely Altered by COVID-19, But There Was Still Plenty to Celebrate as People Responded to the Pandemic


y all accounts, 2020 has been a historically challenging, frightening, and troublesome year. COVID-19 changed our world, creating uncertainty, escalating political division, and sending the nation’s thriving economy into a tailspin. One doesn’t need to look very hard to find plenty of the virus’s casualties, obviously beginning with the people who contracted the illness and died or survived after going through extreme difficulty, now facing the uncertainty of the long-lasting effects. And of course, the damage to our economy has been tremendous, with many small businesses shuttering their doors and many more barely holding on, as well as manufacturing losses through workforce issues, protocol costs, supply chain disruptions, and market uncertainty. Amidst the fear and suffering, though, opportunities to make a positive impact presented themselves and plenty of people stepped up to meet the challenge. We cannot thank our healthcare workers, police, fire, and other essential service sector workers enough, along with businesses and their employees who have provided us with what we needed to get through this pandemic thus far. And of course, chambers and economic development organizations – such as NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership – have responded with the usual creativity, determination, and purpose that they typically demonstrate when a challenge presents itself. This one, however, was off the charts. For NETWORKS’s part, our CEO, Clay Walker, received a text message on a Saturday in early March – as economies across the country were shutting down – from a colleague in South Carolina to him and a few other chamber and EDO executives, saying that now is the time for them to step up and lead business communities whenever and however they could. The pep talk inspired Clay to set up a conference call with the CEOs of the chambers of the Tri-Cities and NeTREP. So, on the following Monday morning, he joined Beth Rhinehart (Bristol), Bob Cantler (Johnson City), Miles Burdine (Kingsport), and Mitch Miller (NeTREP) on a call to coordinate efforts and avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts. On this call, Mitch told the group of his idea to create a website to post the new COVID-19 hours and protocols of restaurants, retailers, and other businesses and services, offering to turn it into a regional effort and in a few days RegionAHEAD, funded by those five organizations, was launched as a resource for customers and would-be customers to find information about businesses to patronize, in and around the Tri-Cities. Like other EDOs and chambers of commerce, NETWORKS reached out to our existing industries, providing weekly email updates on the latest news and resources dealing with the pandemic. We created and regularly updated a COVID-19 Resource Center on our website. Clay participated in weekly Zoom meetings with a small group of economic development leaders from across the state to brainstorm on ideas to help the business community through this challenge. The big economic development story of the year was, of course, the Domtar retention/retooling project in Kingsport. The project was unique for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the paper goods company will be making a very large investment in retrofitting the plant to transition from copy paper production to containerboard production using recycled raw materials, but will actually see a net loss of jobs. While this project was complex and created much discussion, two things remain clear: for a wide variety of reasons, keeping this company here was of immense importance to our collective community and it likely represents the future of what many economic development projects will look like. Our partners really stepped up on the Domtar project, particularly our state elected officials and the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, Department of Transportation, and Department of Labor and Workforce Development. In fact, the state showed tremendous support for our projects all year, some for which we are still competing. TNECD Commissioner Bob Rolfe and his top people flew up to visit with one client, while Governor Lee joined the Commissioner and our CEO on a phone call with another. Maybe these projects are examples of how adversity can bring us together and this will continue as we work our way out of the issues that challenged us for most of 2020. I am extremely proud of the NETWORKS staff who have labored on during this difficult time. They came to the office and found ways to work around the obstructions to lay a great foundation for the recovery. I look forward to a very successful upcoming year. Please stay safe and well,

Bill Sumner Bill Sumner NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership Chairman

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COVID Response Economic Development During a Global Pandemic


o say that economic development efforts were challenged by COVID-19 would be akin to saying that the BMS Night Race is just a weekend mountain drive. While front-line medical responders have certainly faced the most challenging circumstances during the pandemic, everyone has been affected by this global issue. NETWORKS and its partner organizations met the challenge with resolve and creativity, trying to assist our existing businesses and industries and somehow continue the task of marketing and recruitment. Utilizing the NETWORKS website, email blasts, and simply working the phones, staff and partners reached out to our industrial base. NETWORKS also played a leading role in coordinating with other economic development organizations and chambers of commerce and was a partner of the NeTREP-led RegionAHEAD effort, which began as a means to connect retail, restaurant, and service-based businesses to their customers and served as the vehicle to many other initiatives responding to the COVID pandemic. (Please see story in Product Development section.) The challenges of COVID-19 are certainly not nearly resolved and 2021 begins with the staff still operating under a restriction of only necessary travel. As a Board Member of both the Tennessee Economic Development Council (TEDC) and the Tennessee Economic Partnership (TEP), Walker has utilized those groups’ activities, such as virtual meetings with dozens of site selection consultants, as a means to stay in touch with lead providers and regional and state partners. The staff has utilized webinars and virtual conferences for continuing education requirements and has held regular virtual meetings with partners Sullivan and Hawkins counties as well as NeTREP staff.

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hile technology – such as virtual meeting platforms along with the magnification of existing social media branding efforts – has been a big part of economic development organizations’ answer to staying in touch with site location consultants, targeted industry sectors, active prospects, existing industry, and each other, travel restrictions and precautions certainly slowed many projects and presented new challenges in standing apart from the field. Conferences and continuing education courses changed on the fly, with most going virtual. TNECD Commissioner Bob Rolfe held regular conference calls with community and regional EDOs to help mitigate the lack of face-to-face office visits and meetings. And practitioners have studied, discussed, theorized, and tried to prepare for what the future holds as we weather this pandemic and for the weeks, months, and years that will follow once we’re on the other side of it.

SEDC Nashville Long before COVID-19, social distancing, and flattening the curve became part of our day-to-day language, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce built the 2020 Southern Economic Development Council (SEDC) Annual Meeting around the theme of Disruption. The August conference, of which NETWORKS was a sponsor, was forced to go online due to the pandemic. One of the first conferences to be held on-line via Zoom, it still drew about 400 participants.

Tennessee IEDC 2021 Team Tennessee is counting on some normality when it comes to conference in-person attendance returning by late summer 2021 as it will host the International Economic Development Council’s Annual Summit in Nashville. Even if organizers get their wish and the event has pre-COVID attendance numbers, it will still look very different than previous IEDC conferences. Normally, the conference is hosted by a city and its programs center around the host city, but Bryan Daniels, President/CEO of the Blount Partnership, made the point that this conference would be about the entire Volunteer State when pitching IEDC the idea of Tennessee hosting the conference. In fact, before even winning the bid to host the conference, he had set up a team of economic development leaders across the state as well as TNECD and TVA officials. “Bryan made it clear to me when he asked me to represent Northeast Tennessee, as well as help bring in some of my close colleagues in other parts of Tennessee, how serious he was about all corners of our state being a part of this event,” Walker said. “I’ve known Bryan for a few years now, so I knew that he meant it and it has been so rewarding to be on the team organizing the event now that we’ve secured it. Our Zoom meetings resemble a TEDC Board of Directors meeting with such broad representation; in fact, there have been days when many of us will see each other on our computer screens twice on the same day.” In addition to being part of the team determining strategy to land the summit and the subsequent planning and organizing of the event, Walker is in charge of the subcommittee that will provide stories for the magazine each attendee will receive. “We have assembled leaders from across the state to help us showcase the best of Tennessee to the United States and 17 other countries represented by IEDC,” Daniels said. “We’re thankful for Clay’s leadership in chairing the publications subcommittee. We have worked the past four years preparing our state for the summit and we will have options to keep our attendees safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our Team Tennessee host committee will deliver an event sure to address the issues regarding supporting a robust and resilient local, state, and world economy.”

Recruit the Recruiters

While travel restrictions caused the cancellation of most outbound and inbound marketing and recruiting trips, NETWORKS staff traveled to visit clients when necessary, but limited most interactions to virtual meetings and site visits. The annual TNECD Appreciation Event was held days before events were suddenly canceled or postponed as NETWORKS hosted its partners in Nashville at a Predators-Vancouver Canucks hockey game; NeTREP CEO Mitch Miller was also an invited guest for the event. The Northeast Tennessee Red Carpet Tour, the region’s premier inbound marketing event, which usually hosts about a dozen site location consultants and prospects to an event that culminates with the Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, shifted gears and became an internal event as the local team hosted economic development partners at state and regional levels.

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Marketing / Jobs and Investments Company Announcements

While many active recruitment projects were put on hold and others abandoned altogether, many companies continued to present expansion and relocation opportunities. “Our pipeline most definitely changed dramatically, not as much in the numbers, but in the processes and project mix,” Economic Development Director Michael Parker said. “We had several virtual site tours and were asked to put together more video tours to email to the client or our point of contact for the client, such as a consultant, the state ECD, or TVA. And while many advanced manufacturing projects, particularly aerospace and automotive, seemed to pull back the reins on new projects, food processing really picked up during the third and fourth quarters of the year.” NETWORKS and its partners also worked on a great many expansion and retention projects while continuing to grow its pipeline of prospects. “It is pretty much a universally accepted number that about 80 percent of job growth comes from existing businesses and industries. That is why effective economic development programs must have an existing industry component,” Economic Development Consultant Ronnie Price, who oversees NETWORKS’s existing industry program, said. “When you have an event that causes a big market downturn, those existing industries become a community’s lifeblood. The retention wins won’t ever make the headlines but are a big part of where we spent our time in 2020. Fortunately, we were able to also work with some of our companies on new opportunities for growth and success.”

Domtar When Domtar asked local elected officials as well as local and state economic developers to a meeting in April to advise them of their plans to temporarily shutter the Kingsport paper mill due to a dramatic drop in business as a result of COVID-19, the underlying fear for all was that the move would ultimately be made permanent. In July, those concerns became reality when the company informed the same group that it had made the difficult choice to abandon hope that the copy paper industry would come back to the point of keeping this plant viable. The news came with an opportunity though, as the company’s executive team also said that they were expanding their product line to include containerboard, meaning that the Tennessee team had the opportunity to compete with at least one other potential location for the facility. Several issues needed to be addressed and creative solutions developed: how to handle an increase in trailer truck traffic in and out of a facility in the heart of the city’s downtown, the relocation of Cloud Park to expand parking and set-up space needed for the mill’s transition, and creating a competitive business case to offset lucrative incentives being offered by other states that were trying to land the project. And all of these issues had to be addressed within a very short timeline. “It was inspiring to see everyone get on board and do whatever had to get done,” NETWORKS CEO Clay Walker said. “Chris McCartt (Kingsport City Manager) really took the lead and kept the effort organized. We called on anyone who could help, so many people were involved in the effort to keep this company here and each worked with absolute dogged determination and resolve, all the while acting responsibly with public resources, finding resolutions to the company’s issues while protecting the resources of the city, state, and thus the taxpayer. “We called on our state representatives to help pave the way in accessing state resources and paint the picture of how vital Domtar has been to our community and region for more than 100 years. Senator Jon Lundberg, Representative Bud Hulsey, and Representative John Crawford drove to Nashville and were integral in putting together the pieces of this puzzle,” he continued. “County Mayor Richard Venable and the County Commission, Kingsport Mayor Pat Shull, and the Board of Mayor and Alderman did everything and asked every question and considered every consequence along the way. Without everyone responding at the level they did, I don’t know how we could have put this together.” In August, Domtar announced that it would invest about $350 million in the conversion of the plant where it will employ 150 people. The decision came after the company and the city worked out a land swap arrangement, TDOT and the city worked out route improvement solutions, and both the state and the city and county worked out an incentive package that included training assistance and a Payment in Lieu of Tax arrangement on the property improvements. “Domtar is taking decisive action to restructure its business in a way that allows the company to remain competitive in light of current business conditions that have been adversely impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic,” said Domtar President and CEO John Williams. “Repurposing the Kingsport mill is consistent with Domtar’s long-term strategic plan on converting high-quality assets to match market conditions, positioning the company for the future.” For more details of the uniqueness and complexity of this project, we recommend reading more under the News & Events, Q3, section of our website at

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Marketing / Jobs and Investments Homeland Vinyl Products For the second time since locating in Hawkins County in 2015, Homeland Vinyl Products announced in September an expansion of its facility in Phipps Bend Industrial Park. The producer of fencing, decks, and other vinyl products announced that it would construct an additional 38,000 square feet of manufacturing space and add equipment that totaled an investment of about $2.2 million. The expansion will also create the need for the company to make an additional 55 new hires. “We have had great success with our operations in Surgoinsville/Hawkins County,” Scott Smith, Homeland Vinyl CEO, said. “The community and business environment, along with our partnership with the Economic Development Authority, has allowed us to continue to grow at this location.” The company expanded 50,000 square feet in 2017, an expansion that also included the purchase of new equipment while adding 50 new jobs. “While we continue to navigate the challenges that we have been faced with due to the pandemic, TNECD’s work is all the more critical,” said Commissioner Bob Rolfe. “We remain focused on attracting jobs to communities across Tennessee, and I’d like to thank Homeland Vinyl for its investment and commitment to the residents of Hawkins County.”

Modern Forge One of the first companies to locate in Tri-County Industrial Park, Modern Forge expanded its Piney Flats operations. The planned expansion will add 35-50 jobs to the 200 employees as the company invests more than $8 million over the next two years. Modern Forge has been in Sullivan County since 1977 and is one of the five largest employers in the park.

Tabco Powder Coating Tabco Powder Coating, a tenant of Phipps Bend Industrial Park in Hawkins County since 1994, purchased adjacent property from the Phipps Bend Joint Venture Board as part of a $3.1 million expansion project. The company will construct an additional 40,000 square feet onto its existing facility. The project will create 30 new jobs.

Ensemble Ensemble Health Partners, an account management firm based in Cincinnati, Ohio, joined Ballad Health to announce their partnership through a new regional operations center in May. Although Ensemble had not identified a location by the end of the year, they continue to work with economic developers in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. At a joint press conference, the companies explained that they had entered an agreement that would secure about 1,100 jobs currently within Ballad as Ensemble would train those employees as it transitioned to the EPIC electronic health records system to better handle revenue cycle management. With Ballad as its primary customer, Ensemble will hire an additional 500 people to work at its new facility which will be located somewhere in the region as the company works with each state’s economic development team through a unique recruitment process. Due to the scope of the search, Ensemble asked that local economic development contacts be limited, so NeTREP and NETWORKS agreed that NETWORKS would serve as the primary point of contact representing the communities of Northeast Tennessee, working and communicating closely with NeTREP’s Vice President of Business Development, Alicia Summers. Ballad’s primary motivation for the partnership is an improvement in revenue cycle performance. “There’s something to be said, with something in an area that’s as technical as revenue cycle, for having somebody for whom that’s what they do every day from start to finish,” Ballad Chairman and CEO Alan Levine said at the announcement. “This is what Ensemble does. They are experts in how to have a highly productive revenue cycle function.” For Ensemble’s part, founder and CEO Judson Ivy said that our region provided not only a solid business opportunity, but a place in which his company would become engaged as “part of the fabric of the community.” “We could not have done this without the innovative leadership of Ballad Health,” he said. “They sold us on the region – from the culture and work ethic of the people here in Appalachia to the incredible access to quality education, low cost of living, and the infrastructure, we believe this is an incredible opportunity to become part of the growth story of this region.”

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Happy 100th Eastman!

It certainly hasn’t been the Centennial Celebration one would expect for Eastman, with most of its team members working remotely, but the specialty additives company that has been a premier employer in the region and state of Tennessee has taken what opportunities it could to mark the milestone. Several recognitions and accomplishments dotted the calendar in 2020:


commemorates centennial by ringing NYSE opening bell

Commenting on the milestone, Costa stated, “It’s an honor to ring the NYSE opening bell to commemorate our 100th anniversary. In this highly competitive industry, we owe our sustained success to the dedication of our talented employees, our loyal customers and suppliers, and supportive global communities. We are committed to entering our next centennial with the same values, innovative spirit and resilience that have propelled us for a century.”

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hile COVID -19 had a major impact on how community development projects and their processes would take shape in 2020, the partners and staff of NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership saw the pandemic as an opportunity to revisit initiatives to grow and improve product and serve as a reminder of the importance of preparedness. At our Strategic Planning Retreat in June of 2018, NETWORKS identified the shortage of marketable, developed properties as a focal point if we are to be competitive in growing a resilient economy. While Coronavirus safety protocols changed the processes of grant programs, the Sullivan and Hawkins county teams pressed forward with the pursuit of resources and celebrated the completion of one very significant and highly visible project.

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Aerospace Park Launch Tri-Cities Airport hosted officials from across the region to celebrate the development of Aerospace Park reaching its final phases, making it ready for an aviation-sector company choosing to locate there. “I said this many times before, I’ve never been so excited to show people flat land before,” airport Executive Director Gene Cossey said at the “Site Launch Ceremony” in October. The 160-acre site was funded through many partners, including the FAA, TNECD, TDOT, TVA, and the local governments of Sullivan and Washington counties and the cities of Bristol, Johnson City, and Kingsport. “What a special day it is when nearly a hundred elected officials can come together with unconditional and unqualified support for a project,” Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable said at the event, where commemorative coins were given to attendees. The coins were similar to those gifted at the groundbreaking celebration in October of 2018, after the local governments had agreed to round out funding. NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership partners with Tri-Cities Airport in marketing the park, working with site selection consultants and industry insiders as well as attending aviation/aerospace trade shows, including a jointly-funded exhibitor’s booth at the MRO Americas show each year. Unfortunately, that show was canceled in 2020 due to COVID concerns and restrictions. While the pandemic has put a particularly large dent in the aerospace sector, local officials are confident that this investment will generate the economic impact that drove the park’s development. “We’re anticipating that they (projects) are going to come back into their growth stage soon,” Cossey said. “And we’re making sure that we’re out marketing Aerospace Park and the entire region. Because this is a beautiful region; who wouldn’t want to move a company here?”

Bristol Business Park With a recently excavated site of more than 35 acres complete (and drawing the attention of several prospects), the Bristol economic development team was able to receive grants to help develop another site within Bristol Business Park, owned by Bristol Tennessee Essential Services (BTES), the city’s electric and primary broadband provider. The park, which was recently upgraded with natural gas service, is one of the region’s most marketable developments, on the four-lane Highway 394, just a few miles from Interstate 81. With BTES’s Business Development Manager April Eads leading the effort, with the help of City of Bristol Economic Development Director Tom Anderson, Economic Development Specialist Matt Garland, Director of Communications Jon Luttrell, and NETWORKS CEO, Clay Walker, TNECD awarded BTES $500,000 for the development of a 22-acre parcel of land that can easily be divided into two tracts with the upper end of the development ideal for a 35,000-square foot office building while the remaining acreage will accommodate up to a 200,000-square foot manufacturing facility. The park has also received undisclosed financial and technical assistance from TVA.

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Product/Community Investment “We’re pleased to continue work with our partners in developing three pad-ready sites located in Bristol Business Park,” said Dr. Mike Browder, CEO of BTES. “Eliminating perceived risks from potential prospects, such as their speed to market, is a competitive advantage when trying to recruit new business and industry to our community.”

Phipps Bend Industrial Park Hawkins County’s signature manufacturing center, Phipps Bend Industrial Park – a partnership between the Hawkins County IDB, the Kingsport EDB, and TVA – also received assistance from TNECD and TVA. Working with NETWORKS and its community partners, the Hawkins County Industrial Development Board has seen a swath of land with the potential to add rail service as an opportunity for a site unique to the region. With some infrastructure relocation and potential mitigation, two tracts of land could be brought together for a single 120-acre site. To that end, TNECD awarded $100,000 to the IDB to conduct due diligence on the realignment of a sewer line that currently runs through the site. “Once developed, the site will offer a unique availability of power and acreage in the Northeast Tennessee market,” said Hawkins County Industrial Coordinator Rebecca Baker, who has worked alongside NETWORKS Director of Economic Development Michael Parker on the site development grant applications.

Partnership Park II Rail Site NETWORKS continues to work toward creating a 30-acre(+/-) rail site in Partnership Park II. Aided by a $ 1 million high impact grant from TNECD, the site will be brought to rail-grade and be the largest such site in the region. Working with Sullivan County, NETWORKS anticipates the Certificate of Public Purpose and Necessity – needed to fulfill requirements of the bond issued by Sullivan County on behalf of our partner communities – to be completed in time to send the project out to bid the first quarter of 2021.

Evaluation of Properties The City of Kingsport continued its work with NETWORKS and other partners in a search for potential industrial property. When NETWORKS asked its partners to invest in the development of the Partnership Park II rail site, its Board and supporting governmental bodies allocated a like amount of $4 million to be set aside for the western end of Sullivan County. While COVID has certainly slowed the progress, potential sites have been identified and due diligence consideration is underway. “As we recruit new industry and support the growth of existing Tennessee companies, it is critical for us to have a robust inventory of shovel-ready sites,” TNECD Commissioner Bob Rolfe said.

Workforce Issues in the ‘New Normal’ At times, the world before COVID-19 might feel like a hazy, distant memory, but before the pandemic turned the economy and our dayto-day lifestyles upside down, the nation was experiencing record employment and one of the challenges facing companies was finding talent in an extremely competitive labor market. For companies that remained operational or experienced only brief shutdowns, two main workforce challenges presented themselves: keeping their staff safe while following ever-developing governmental guidelines and keeping or finding qualified people who felt safe coming to work as Coronavirus numbers rose.

NETWORKS, NeTREP, FTDD Pool Resources In the months prior to COVID, NETWORKS, NeTREP, and the First Tennessee Development District had been in discussions about some areas where partnering seemed to be appropriate. These conversations were happening against the backdrop of their work with the FTDDled Education to Employment (E2E) program, which would ultimately transform from an all-day conference into breakout online meetings on specific topics of interest held over several weeks. “Recently, we discussed workforce opportunities available, but not widely publicized or known by business and industry,” FTDD Director of Workforce Development Lottie Ryans said. “The team is planning a series of monthly learning sessions to allow experts to meet with business and industry around the region and share available resources and programs.” The first session was held in December, providing an overview of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s Jobs4TN program that provides on-line job postings across the state. There are sessions planned to highlight Northeast State Community College’s Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing (RCAM) and another that will focus on high school internships. The group plans to share best practices, such as BTES’s award-winning Teacher Industry Day. “The regional collaboration means we can more broadly and efficiently meet the needs of employers in the region,” Ryans said. “Each organization is able to tap into their networks and resources across the region and state to bring the best information to employers.”

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Product/Community Investment Local Connection Opportunities

The cities and chambers of commerce were also active in helping employers’ staffing issues in spite of the challenges in doing so in the throes of a global pandemic. The Kingsport Chamber of Commerce hosted a series of virtual job fairs in September and with financial assistance from the Bristol Industrial Development Board, the City of Bristol took its popular Hiring Expo virtual, launching a hiring portal to assist employers and would-be employees in matching skills and qualifications to open positions in the region.

Rose, Garland Join the Economic Development Team

Sometimes product development means growing the economic and community development team, both in terms of people and proficiencies. A little of both occurred in 2020, with John Rose and Matt Garland accepting key positions in Kingsport and Bristol, respectively, and NETWORKS’s Michael Parker being selected to participate in a statewide leadership program.

John Rose

Rose was named the City of Kingsport’s Economic Development Director in December, where he will work closely with City Manager Chris McCartt and Development Coordinator Elizabeth Rowe, to advance the city’s economic development efforts. Rose will also be part of the team of community partners working on traditional economic development projects with NETWORKS. “I’m very excited to start this position. There are many projects I’m looking forward to working on,” Rose said. “Kingsport has been my home for over 20 years and I’m grateful for this opportunity to help the city grow and thrive.” A graduate of Tusculum University, Rose most recently performed consulting work for property developments and had been Operations Manager at Vic Davis Construction and Director of Operations at Edinburgh Group.

Matt Garland

The City of Bristol added an old friend and partner in Northeast Tennessee’s economic development efforts when Garland resigned his position as CEO of The Greene County Partnership to become the city’s Economic Development Specialist. An ETSU graduate, Garland had previously worked at the regional level with the First Tennessee Development District and more recently TNECD.

Michael Parker

Parker, NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership’s Director of Business Development, was named as a member of the 2021 class of Leadership Tennessee’s NEXT program, the state’s only statewide program focusing on existing and emerging leaders, crossing geographic and industry boundaries. LT NEXT offers early-to-mid-career professionals in-depth personal and professional development while fostering a better understanding of our state. “At Leadership Tennessee, we want to build a network of problem solvers and engaged citizens to come together on issues of statewide importance and Leadership NEXT extends that network to the leaders of tomorrow,” Executive Director Cathy Cate said.


In July, after several months of coping with COVID restrictions, STREAMWORKS closed its doors and went to a virtual format. By the end of the year, however, the educational program powered by Eastman – which promotes science, technology, reading, engineering, arts, and mathematics among elementary and middle school children with hands-on learning – had found a new home within space in Kingsport leased by partner East Tennessee State University. In March, ETSU developed a prototype face shield to protect front-line workers, with STREAMWORKS assisting with production, using its 3D printers. “Times like this, when the need is urgent, we are focusing on effectiveness, quantity, and speed of delivery,” Executive Director Dennis Courtney said of the hands-on experience his students gained. “We want to do our part to make sure that our community stays safe by doing what we can for our health care heroes.”


In early March, as Tennessee and other states were establishing protocols to contain the Coronavirus that dramatically altered companies’ business practices and hours, our region’s economic developers and chambers of commerce coordinated their efforts to avoid duplication and to maximize the assistance it could provide. Almost immediately, a regional idea was launched. NETWORKS CEO Clay Walker set up a conference call with the chambers of commerce of the Tri-Cities and NeTREP CEO Mitch Miller. Prior to the conference call, Miller and Walker were chatting when Miller explained his idea for a website that businesses could populate and update changes of protocol, hours, and other pertinent information so that it could serve as a business directory to their CONTINUED ON BACK PAGE

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Regional Leaders Hone in on Optimal Collaborative Approach


lthough no formal agreement was reached, great strides were made in 2020 that offered promise of a collaborative path forward in terms of regional economic development in early 2021. Only once were NETWORKS and NeTREP board and staff able to get everyone together – in a large room that allowed for social distancing, made available by the Bank of Tennessee at its Blountville data center – and even then, many opted to attend virtually. Thankfully and predictably, the region’s leadership did not let the unusual circumstances of the times prevent the move toward finding the optimal collaborative solution to grow the region. In addition to the work being done by NETWORKS and NeTREP, a private-sector movement; as well as, the Mayors’ Blue Ribbon Task Force on Economic Development spearheaded by Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable, Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy, and the Board of the First Tennessee Development District were engaged in their own research and development of potential models for a single hub organization to promote the region. While opinions remained varied about structure and how NETWORKS and NeTREP should be integrated into the regional effort, a strong consensus was established on most every operational issue; most, if not all, plans included areas of focus in entrepreneurism and small business, tourism, population growth/talent attraction, primary job attraction and growth, and public policy. Venable touted the effort as an opportunity “to best magnify the voice of Northeast Tennessee on economic, entrepreneurial, tourism, and workforce development.” As 2020 came to a close, the components identified by the Blue Ribbon Task Force, the private-sector, and two major EDOs in the region were coming together as the FTDD had become the conduit to the various efforts, blending the best of all of the plans into a central, inclusive model. “That organization is funded through the state and managed locally – the board of directors for that organization is every mayor in those eight counties – cities, towns, any wide spot in the road, you name it. There are around 40 directors,” Grandy said. Meanwhile, NETWORKS and NeTREP continue to work collaboratively wherever they find opportunities, including weekly virtual updates among the industrial recruitment teams, working toward a final, formal solution as to how to go forward with the optimal path for all of Northeast Tennessee’s success. Mayors Venable and Grandy say that bylaws are being drafted for the plan under the guidance of the FTDD, which they expect will be released in the first quarter of 2021.

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Product/Community Investment customer bases. He said that it could be made into a regional project if the group so desired. On the call later that day, all five CEOs were in agreement that making it a joint project was appropriate and RegionAHEAD was born. “We tried to offer assistance in any way we could,” Walker said. “But, like most everyone else, we felt kind of helpless on many occasions. We relied on each other, our partners throughout the region and state, and, of course, our Board leadership to come up with ideas and spot opportunities to make a difference wherever we could. “I can’t tell you how impressed I was with my colleagues like Mitch, who hatched the RegionAHEAD concept, and the CEOs of the chambers, Bob Cantler (Johnson City), Miles Burdine (Kingsport), and Beth Rhinehart (Bristol), all of whom had such an impact and continue to do so as we try to minimize the losses suffered economically. They’ve all inspired me at one point or another.” The RegionAHEAD website served as the platform for other efforts, such as the Small Business Recovery Fund, an idea of businessman Andy Dietrich that raised more than $250,000 that was distributed as grants to struggling businesses. “The government loans can’t serve all of the needs of small businesses in our region,” Burdine said. “We want to help businesses across the region that might fall through the cracks of government loans.” Other programs – TRI-Kindness, a marketing campaign generated by Creative Energy to focus on and encourage supportive deeds during the pandemic, and the “Thank a Hero” campaign to recognize health care and other front-line workers and encourage people to wear protective masks and take other recommended precautions to help stop the spread of the Coronavirus – were also launched from the site.

NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership is the economic development organization serving the Northeast Tennessee communities in Sullivan – including charter partners Bluff City, Bristol, and Kingsport – and Hawkins counties. Our team of professionals is ready and able to assist you and your company reach your fullest potential here.

Where Tennessee Begins Its Business Day VOTING MEMBERS: Bill Sumner, Bell – Chairman; David Wagner, Bank of Tennessee – Vice Chairman; CeeGee McCord, Eastman – Secretary/Treasurer; Pat Breeding – GRC Construction; Jerry Caldwell – Bristol Motor Speedway; Carolyn Ferrell – Robinette Co; Chad Keen – Bristol; Mayor Mahlon Luttrell – Bristol; Lea Powers – Bristol; Mayor Pat Shull – Kingsport; Mark Vance – Sullivan County; Mayor Richard Venable – Sullivan County; Mayor Irene Wells – Bluff City EX-OFFICIO MEMBERS: Emily Ball – AEP; Dr. Michael Browder – BTES; Dr. David Cox – Sullivan County Schools; Jeffrey Dykes – BrightRidge; Chris McCartt – City Manager, Kingsport; Dr. Jeff Moorhouse – Kingsport City Schools; Dr. Sam Rowell – Northeast State; Bill Sorah – City Manager, Bristol; Dr. Annette Tudor – Bristol City Schools; Clay Walker – NETWORKS CEO

PO Box 747, Blountville, TN 37617 • • 423.279.7681

Clay Walker, CEcD • CEO

Ronnie Price • Economic Development Specialist

Michael Parker • Director of Economic Development

Abby Mease • Administrative Assistant