Identity crisis one of many issues facing county

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   The U.S. Army, in its recruitment advertisements, offers a piece of advice which Carter County should take to heart: "Be the best you can be." But for the county, that could be a problem until residents decide just what they want from their community.
   There are many issues which must be confronted, some of which are identified here by various leaders throughout the community.
  
Manufacturing/tourism
   Guy Austin, executive editor of the Elizabethton Star, said that though the county has many assets to draw from, "We don't have any drawing card until we decide what we want to be. What we need is an identity. Manufacturing is not the way to go, in my view, because it's a function of time before it's all overseas, whether it's Mexico, Thailand, or wherever. So that's only got limited growth. But if we're going to go into an industrial-based economy, we need to put the majority of all our efforts into that and that should be a community-based thing.
   "If we're going to be a bedroom community, which is fine, then we should be the best bedroom community around and focus on drawing our tourism trade; bring more people in that way and put the majority of our resources there. But until we have an identity, we're just going to flounder around like we have been for the last 10 or 15 years," he said.
   County Executive Dale Fair agrees that the county has been short-sighted in its vision. "It's been only looking at manufacturing, and that has been tough on everybody. When you've got Eastman cutting back on salaries, you know it's just not an Elizabethton/Carter County problem.
   "Where we have maybe been a little short-sighted, it's in not having that planning for health care, tourism, retail, recreation. People have money to pay for those little caveats. They want to come to an old-looking town with antique shops and just browse and spend their money. They eat there, and tell their friends and neighbors."
   While the Economic Development Commission office is busy trying to recruit manufacturing industries, there is no concerted effort being made to bring in other businesses, according to Fair. "We don't have anybody else saying, 'Ruby Tuesday's, what would it take to come here?' We don't have a committee that I know of, or a concerted effort going after retail restaurants, hotels and things like that, and showing them the value of coming here and what they could expect if they did."
   The Tri-Cities Statistical Metropolitan Area is made up of more than a quarter-million people, and it doesn't even have an outlet mall, according to Fair. The nearest is in either Blowing Rock or Gatlinburg, he said.
   "Somebody ought to come up with an outlet mall that people from Bristol, Kingsport, Johnson City, Elizabethton, Erwin, Mountain City can come to." The Okolona Road exit in Carter County soon will be located off Interstate 26. "It would be a great location. Anybody could get to it in 15 or 20 minutes," Fair said.
   "But is anybody working on that? All we're working on is getting manufacturing jobs, and that's a hard order to fill right now. We don't want to stop that or slow it down; it needs to continue. But we need some side groups going to restaurants and saying, 'O'Charley's, what do you need?' Or Shoneys. We're a Shoney's type town. Or Ryans. Our eating habits are consistent with Ryans or Golden Corral," he said.
   "There are not any groups that I know of working on health care. The Baby Boomers are a huge block of people that are moving through the system," according to Fair. As they near age 60 or 65, more will advance through the health care system in numbers never before seen in this country, he said.
   "So why not develop a community where you have low taxes, good quality of life, good entertainment, good eateries, and let them come here? They have money, they spend money. They love the style of life here. Why not say, 'This is our niche. We want to go with health-related things.' "
   City Manager Charles Stahl said he does not believe that the community should concentrate on any one thing. "You have to have a diversified economic base that ideally has the goal of being recession-proof. That's a big one. A recession-proof economy is one that's as diversified as it possibly can be. It may be an unrealistic goal, in the true sense of the word, but nevertheless, you need to make sure that the economic base is diversified for the greater good of the community down the road.
   "We should not exclude anything -- and we don't have the luxury of concentrating on any one thing. It's all important -- industrial jobs, manufacturing, service-related industrial activity, as well as the tourism industry itself," Stahl said.
  
One government?
   Metro government would reduce costs because it would combine city and county functions. However, this consolidation attempt also would put some local government leaders out of work.
   And it would meet with strong opposition, according to Stahl. "Sometimes the perception of metro government is that it's the all-encompassing solution for some issues. The way the state legislation is, it's not as easy as it seems. The city has never taken a position for or against metro government. Frankly, the idea's never moved, even though the county still has a metro government committee on the books.
   "One of the issues that would be a real hotbed in this county, and the city both, is the school system issue, because as people talk about metro government and consolidating services, schools are a component of that. That's not an easy issue to tackle, when you talk about closing schools down and building centralized schools, and that type thing."
   Last week's incident at Elizabethton High School, when students walked out after Principal Ed Alexander was placed on suspension, is but a small example of what could happen if there was a move to close or consolidate schools, according to Stahl.
  
The liquor issue
   Ken Riddle, who wears many hats, including tourism promoter, says he believes liquor by the drink is the first step toward bringing outside money into the county. "Nobody is going to develop anything of substance on the mountains or the lake without the ability to have liquor by the drink," he said. "There is plenty of liquor consumed in Carter County, with the tax money collected elsewhere. Somebody needs to wake up."
   Stahl said there is some evidence that restaurant interest is dependent either on population density or the ability of restaurants to have liquor sales to help their bottom line.
   "If you go down to Pigeon Forge, they may not have liquor sales to attract some of these chain restaurants, but they have population density, in terms of tourism density, that makes these restaurants want to locate in Pigeon Forge, and that is a component to their sales and their bottom line," Stahl said.
   "But without a certain level of density of tourism or population, it appears that liquor sales is a component to that. If this community has a desire for some restaurant activity beyond what we have today, it appears that is something that needs to be considered."
   The only way the city or county could bring in liquor by the drink is by popular vote. Local governments cannot impose liquor sales on the community, according to Stahl.
   "It would have to be generated by a petition to the Election Commission. If that is the desire of the community to have certain restaurants in this community, it appears that the liquor question would have to be considered by the voters at some point in time."
   The issue could not be presented until the 2004 General Election, he said.
   According to Austin, "We need to be more realistic. A great deal of money is spent in Johnson City and Bristol liquor stores. It is not a moral issue for this town. It is a moral issue for each individual. If everyone was so against this issue, they wouldn't be driving to Johnson City to eat in restaurants that serve liquor -- especially after church on Sunday."