Where are the jobs?

Spirit of cooperation high as county/city officials explore economic development

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

  
(This is the first of a multi-part series)
   Desperate times call for desperate measures, but this is not always negative. While the United States' war with Iraq is entering its second week overseas, on the homefront, city, county, chamber of commerce and power company representatives are engaged in their own battle: keeping existing jobs and creating new ones through whatever means necessary.
   For a community which has continually thumbed its nose at metro government, a string of recent industrial losses -- Alcoa, Frank Schaffer, Cendant, Moody Aviation and now Inland -- has pulled city and county leaders together in a spirit of cooperation aimed at a common goal. In the process, they have identified a list of pros and cons as far as job development is concerned.
   To Carter County's disadvantage, and No. 1 on the list, according to Economic Development Director Haynes Elliott:
   * It has no large tracts of land on which to build industry. The average industry requires about 20 acres, plus infrastructure. Carter County's largest tract is 10 acres, while the city's is 19 acres in Cherokee Industrial Park, which is restricted to light industrial development due to a history of potential contamination from the former Bemberg Plant.
   * There is no interstate highway passing through the county. Interstate access is 16 miles away at the ramp to Interstate 81/181.
   * There is an employment gap between skilled workers and those available to work in high-tech industry.
   * Carter County, historically, has put all its eggs in one basket by concentrating on manufacturing. Unlike Bristol, which has Bristol Motor Speedway; or Boone, N.C., which has built up its tourist trade and turned surrounding mountains into money-making ski slopes, it has not been decided what this area's drawing card will be.
   To the county's and city's advantage, the area has:
   * An expanded airport that will accommodate small corporate jets.
   * Hotel accommodations.
   * A new five-lane highway going through Stoney Creek past Watauga Industrial Park, and the promise of a Northern Connector which will make access to the industrial park from outside the city much easier. Potential development of new highway from the industrial park to Tri-Cities Regional Airport.
   * New transmission lines in progress from Tennessee Valley Authority to better provide power for its distributor, Elizabethton Electric System.
   * A tax base which has been stable over the last decade.
   * Facilities of higher learning such as Northeast State Community College and Tennessee Technology Center, and skilled worker training at Tennessee Vocational Rehabilitation Center.
   * Development of a regional water source through Watauga River Regional Water Authority for future residential/commercial/industrial use.
   * A small southern town atmosphere and abundant natural resources.
   * The third lowest unemployment rate among seven nearby counties.
   So why don't we have jobs?
   Is Haynes Elliott -- easily the fall guy when it comes to lack of industry -- stretching the truth when he says the county has potential job prospects? Are county and city officials offering the best incentive packages they can to potential clients, and can they come up with aid for existing industry if needed? Has the war with Iraq already had an impact on economic development? Is Carter County the only local community reeling from industrial loss?
   Last week, the Star put these questions and more to EDC Director Elliott, Carter County Executive Dale Fair, Elizabethton City Manager Charles Stahl, Bristol Tennessee City Manager Tony Massey and Elizabethton Electric System General Manger Phil Isaacs. Their answers are forthcoming this week in a series of stories.
   According to Elliott, Carter County has a total labor force of 26,590. Of those, according to January 2003 jobless figures, 24,850 are employed; 17,040 are not working, for a 6.5 percent unemployment rate. The only two counties which have less unemployment are Washington County at 4.7 percent and Sullivan County at 4.8 percent. Unicoi (7.2 percent), Jefferson (7.3), Greene (7.9) and Johnson County (10.9), all trail Carter County in rising unemployment.
   But out of those 24,850 Carter County residents who are employed, only about 3,000 of those work at Carter County's 26 largest companies, according to the Department of Economic & Community Development in Nashville. Only one of those, Inland Paperboard & Package, which announced its closure two weeks ago, has union affiliation.
   Where do the remainder of county employees work? In local retail and service-based businesses, out of town, or out of state.
   "Everybody says they've all gone out of our county to get some jobs," Elliott said Friday. "Well, this is what I've been hollering about. We've got to have some land if we're going to have any more jobs here. It's simple.
   "If you look at the maps, Greeneville has got rolling acres everywhere. There are about four or five decent sites in Carter County with as much as 100 acres. There's a couple that have the infrastructure."
   The average industry requires about 20 acres, and only Cherokee Industrial Park comes close with availability. "The main thing we have to understand is the city's got some money they've saved to buy land; the county doesn't," Elliott said. While the state of Tennessee has given the county millions of dollars over the years for infrastructure development, according to law it cannot give any county money to buy land, he said. "The county is going to have to bite the bullet and put up their half if we buy any land."
   The second thing that needs to be understood, according to Elliott, is that once the city and county purchase that additional land, "they probably will have to give it away. I almost always give them the land. That's part of it to be competitive.
   "We've got to decide which way we're going. Are we going to be strictly a bedroom community or are we going to try to develop what land we've got left? The fact that we've had this bad luck losing these industries -- we'll put somebody in those. Of course the war has stopped everything. But it's not going to go on forever," he said.
   Tomorrow: A lesson from Bristol?