Carter County: A proactive or reactive approach to the future?

By Kathy Helms-Hughes


   It's time for this community to be proactive.
   The Star, in a series of interviews and articles last week, looked at Carter County's plight, prompted by the news that Inland Paperboard & Packaging's main operation is leaving town after 50 years. From numerous interviews with city, county, economic development, tourism and business leaders throughout the community, several issues were brought up over and over:
   * The era of manufacturing industry is playing out as business after business leave for Third World countries where labor is cheap and environmental regulations few;
   * The community already has felt the effects of an economic downturn and impact from the war with Iraq. The state, city and county all are struggling hard to make ends meet, leaving little revenue for anything except to keep government functioning;
   * Carter County doesn't have an identity, therefore, it doesn't know what it wants to be, or where it's going;
   * Attitudes have to change if the county is going to grow.
   Taking all issues into account, where do we go from here?
   In 1951, the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina railway abandoned its narrow gauge rail system that ran from Elizabethton, through Doe River Gorge in Hampton, all the way to Cranberry, N.C.
   The railroad was offered by ET&WNC to Carter County, according to Ken Riddle, a train aficionado and tourism promoter instrumental in helping set up Doe River Gorge children's camp.
   "Carter County blew a great opportunity," Riddle said. "The county not only declined the opportunity to keep the railroad, but rebuffed the company when they offered one of the original locomotives to be displayed in Elizabethton. Part of the original railroad is back in service at Doe River Gorge camp and it is an extremely popular attraction when it is opened to the public a few weekends every year."
   In Colorado, the Durango & Silverton narrow gauge railroad hauls hundreds of thousands of passengers every year, according to Riddle. "It would have never been saved had the towns not stopped the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad from abandoning it in the early 1950s," he said.
   The closing of Inland Container will probably be the first nail in the coffin of rail service in Carter County, according to Riddle. "There is only one industry left that needs rail service in Elizabethton and it is not significant enough to keep the line intact. And the heck of it all is that nobody in the position to help seems to care."
   In the absence of manufacturing, and perhaps in the alternative, Carter County is ripe for tourism, according to County Executive Dale Fair and City Manager Charles Stahl.
   "Tourism is a component of economic development, not just here but throughout the nation. In our particular case, tourism probably has an even greater role," Stahl said. "Not only do we have the history aspect of tourism in our county but its natural beauty, with respect to our waterways, lakes and mountains. We have an asset here. Working with the state, but also working independently from the state, we need to have a constant promotion of tourism."
   County Executive Fair agreed. "We need to have a plan. We need to have a buy-in. That means, is it what the communities want? People want jobs, but if you were to go into their area and talk about putting in an industrial park, they'd fight you tooth and nail."
   There's a certain element of the population that wants isolation and doesn't take kindly to intrusion, and that is to be respected. At the same time, unless attitudes change, Carter County's future likely could be one continuous parking lot.
   "You can have all the planning in the world, but if you don't have the buy-in of that particular community, or the community as a whole, you've got a long row to hoe," Fair said.
   Whether you want to call it "Tennessee's First Frontier," tied to the days of the Overmountain Men, or link it to North Carolina's "High Country," or capitalize on Johnson City's medical corridor, Carter County needs an identity and a common voice, according to Guy Austin, executive editor of the Elizabethton Star.
   "We have different people going in different directions. Some people want to be a bedroom community, and they have a lot of influence in this town. Some people want to be an industrial-type community, and they have a lot of influence in this town. But this community doesn't really speak with one voice.
   "We need a true leader in this community that the community can rally around," Austin said. "We don't have anyone that's out front talking to the public, constantly telling us what's going on, constantly telling us what we need to do to help them, what shared sacrifices we might be willing to pay to help build our community.
   "We just get an occasional city council meeting, an occasional county commission meeting, and every once in a while we hear what's happening at the Economic Development office. We need someone that can rally this community, that has true leadership qualities and can bring us together so we can work together," he said.
   When Riddle started in the tourism business in the mid-1970s, Avery County, N.C., was not thought of as a "destination," he said.
   "By hooking up with Watauga County as the 'High Country Hosts' and the ensuing development that came to Banner Elk and Beech Mountain, all of Avery County has done quite well," Riddle said. "What has happened to Carter County is not all that different than what happened in Avery County years ago when the timber and iron industries finished up."
   Riddle said Carter County needs to wake up and realize that the rayon days are gone forever, "but if they do, it will be the first time. It is just so sad to see the same attitude that has stifled any and all development in Carter County remaining in full flower as the last decent jobs and a railroad pull up out of the county."
   Austin, a proponent of metro government, said Carter County's reluctance to change also makes it difficult to have a guiding force.
   "We're a small community with way too many people at the administrative level. This town needs metro government. This town needs to be streamlined; people are doing it at home, they're reducing their costs. People are doing it in business; they're reducing their costs. We can see that all over the country.
   "We need to do it at the government level -- reduce our costs, combine into one form of government, and then you have individuals that can make decisions quickly. They're not always going to make the right decisions, but we can rebound and respond to that. But at least decisions are being made. We're not making any decisions," he said.
   Tomorrow: Bridging the skills gap