Community Forum held at Watauga City Hall

By Greg Miller
The Watauga City Hall Chamber Room on Tuesday evening was nearly filled with people attending a Community Forum.
Keith Young, director of Northeast State Technical Community College, and who also serves as vice president of the Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce's Leadership Development Council and chairman of the Visioning Committee, used Tupelo, Miss., as an example of the success that he believes is possible for Carter County. "Tupelo, Miss., in 1950 had absolutely nothing going for it," Young said.
"The closest municipal city was 250 miles away. There was no place they could borrow success from. It was an ugly town, it had no natural beauty. It was just flat and dirty." In the early 1940s, no counties in the country were poorer than Lee County, Miss., Young said.
Within 10 years, however, Tupelo "found its golden egg, so to speak," he said. "It developed an economy, which continues today to generate thousands of jobs. Last year alone, it generated 2,200 jobs for its people, not just low-paying jobs either."
A survey was distributed throughout Carter County earlier this year. "The survey had two questions. It said basically, 'What do you like about living and working in Elizabethton/Carter County?' The other said, 'What changes or improvements would you recommend?'"
The number one concern of survey respondents was jobs, according to Young, who said a good education is an important factor in getting a good job. Quality of life issues, better restaurant and entertainment opportunities, education and training, developing business and tourism opportunities, and liquor-by-the-drink were among other more prominent issues.
"We're losing a lot of industry, I mean a whole lot of industry," said First District Public Defender David Bautista. "We are in a precarious economic position. I hasten to add that just makes us one of the communities in this country that are in that kind of position. It's true all across America."
Bautista referred to an article about Douglas, Ga., in Sunday's Elizabethton Star. "Douglas, Ga., is a city just a little smaller than Elizabethton, about 10,600," he said. "Elizabethton right now is probably 14,000 maybe 15,000 since the last census."
The mayor of Douglas, which "lost almost everything," decided to aggressively attack the problem. "Maybe we need to do what Douglas, Ga., is proposing to do," Bautista said.
A convention center would be an economic boon to the Elizabethton/Carter County area, Bautista said. "We see a need for a convention center in Elizabethton, something to draw the people in, the retail dollars, the tax dollars that they will spend when they come."
The convention center could be called "The Franklin Lodge." "Let's put our heads together, maybe we could come up with a nice convention center to stir some interest and pull people into Carter County," Bautista said.
"Everything is not doom and gloom," remarked Tourism Director Larry Gobble, who said the county's tourism industry is not going to shut its doors and is not going to lay off anyone. "Tourism is Tennessee's second largest industry." The state brings in $9.6 billion in tourism annually, Gobble said. Of the 50 states, Tennessee ranks 15th in domestic travel.
Carter County "benefits from tourism by $20.3 million a year. That's how much money is calculated that comes into Carter County from tourism every year." About 160 people work in travel-related employment in the county, with a payroll of about $3.2 million.
Jim Whaley, County Commissioner in the Third District, said the county needs to expand its tourism base. "Tourism, I feel, is something that we have, and we have right now," he said. "It's something that we really need to expand on... We need to work on tourism. It's a way for us to expand our tax base, because historically the tax burden is placed upon the property owner. The property owner pays the bills."