'Portrait of our Community' takes hard look at county

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   In 1959, only 20 percent of jobs held by workers ages 30 to 59 required some postsecondary education. In 2002, that number has increased to approximately 56 percent.
   Within the next three years, it is projected that nearly half of all U.S. workers will be employed in industries that produce or intensively use information technology and services. Tennessee ranks 42nd in the nation, with only 2 percent of its jobs relegated to high level technology.
   "There is a strong need for better education and trained workers in Tennessee's marketplace. Continuing technological advances and competition with other states, as well as with foreign markets, are shaping Tennessee's labor market," according to a representative from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
   Today at 5:30 p.m. in the Truman Clark Annex/Carter County Health Department, County Executive Dale Fair and City Manger Charles Stahl will kick off a "Portrait of Our Community" meeting which explores "The Skills Gap in Our Region." Also on the agenda is a presentation on Carter County's "Strategic Planning Initiative" and a report from the Vision Committee.
   Fair said he wants the public to hear about the county's Strategic Planning Initiative then decide what role they can play in future development. He also stressed the need to hear what Dr. Karen Tarnoff from East Tennessee State University has to say about the gap between getting students and young adults ready for the work force and the tools available to help them prepare.
   "There's a gap between the two, and we need to make arrangements to fill that gap," Fair said.
   Guy Austin, executive editor of the Elizabethton Star, says that while Carter County may not have the most skilled labor force, its workers are a key sales component.
   "We have one of the most loyal labor forces, and that's what I would be selling people. You can educate just about anyone, but you can't teach loyalty. We have that here, because the people in Elizabethton and Carter County are loyal to their friends and their family, and to their town. We saw that with the recent Ed Alexander fiasco.
   "So if we get a good company in here that pays good wages, they will have a good labor force. If we're going to go down that route, then we start plowing our resources into the education side of the house and develop a more skilled labor force. This stuff that 'We don't have the workers,' just seems a little bit silly to me. We have people begging for jobs," Austin said.
   According to Charles Stahl, certain industries that city and county leaders have tried to recruit have required specific skill levels. "We have to draw on our neighbors when it comes to providing even the numbers of applicants that certain industries are expecting.
   "We need to try to keep kids in school, make sure that we improve our level of high school graduates in the county and certainly encourage them to take advantage of any skilled trades. If they choose not to go to college, that's well and fine; but there are plenty of skilled trades out there and we need to encourage that for the future of our community," Stahl said.
   Even if the city and county have the right land and the right location, if businesses aren't satisfied that the community can offer a certain number of skilled tradesmen or women to suit their needs, "they will typically locate in a bigger market area," Stahl said.
   The Leadership Tomorrow committee in a 2002 study comparing economic indicators between Carter County/Elizabethton and Greene County/Greeneville -- two communities traditionally closest in population size -- found wide disparity between the two in economic development. In Carter County, manufacturing growth between 1991-2000 showed 770 job opportunities at new plants, compared to 3,725 in Greene County.
   During that same time period, there were 481 new jobs through the expansion of existing plants in Carter County and 5,196 in Greene County. The leadership committee attributed the 7-to-1 margin of difference to the creation of Greene County Partnership and its success in industrial recruitment.
   According to the leadership committee, "Through the partnership and in their recruitment they began to speak with one voice in a unified approach to recruitment."
   "Greeneville had some success a few years ago because they consolidated their tourism, EDC (Economic Development Commission) and Chamber into one function, called the Greene County Partnership. They're all one agency now and have the blessings of the city and county," Fair said.
   Fair said he believes EDC Director Haynes Elliott has had the support of the city and county, "but I don't know that there's that much coordination between tourism, Chamber and EDC. That could be a step in the right direction."
   Austin, who in his seven years at the Elizabethon Star has had the opportunity to hear from much of the community, said, "Everybody complains that we need more jobs in the community. Everybody in government tells us that's what they're doing. But I can't find anybody that feels good about either side of the issue. That tells me that we don't have a concerted plan of how we're going to attack our future growth. We should have a two year plan, a five year plan, a 10 year plan, and a 15 year plan."
   Austin says he is against all forms of increased taxes as a standard answer to accelerating growth, "but I'd sure the heck pay more property tax if I thought the people of this city and this county were moving in a direction that was going to generate more jobs and revenue for the people of this county.
   "If we just sit around and wait for one individual down at the EDC to make it all happen, and then get frustrated when company after company closes, I can see why nobody would want their taxes raised. We've got to see some type of action.
   "We seem to be letting the market take its toll on us instead of adjusting to compete in the marketplace. We have a lot of assets and a lot of attributes; we just don't seem to be using them. What we need more than anything is a leader or two that can rally people and bring people together," Austin said.
   According to the Leadership Tomorrow study, in its comparison of development between Greene and Carter counties, Carter's mountainous terrain restricts industrial development. Greene County's rolling acres are more inviting and lend themselves more readily to highway system development.
   While Carter County's landscape may influence the types of industries it realistically could recruit, it also may dictate a channeling of efforts for expansion and development of the tourism industry, according to the committee, which believes the opportunities are numerous.
   "A full development of the tourism industry in Carter County will require a number of additional hotels/motels, good quality restaurants, a convention facility and passage of liquor by the drink local option, as well as package stores," the committee said. "This was done in Greene County with the reformation of the General Morgan Inn, which is a major tourist attraction in the City of Greeneville."