Jobs Cabinet meeting long on civility, short on debate

Photo by Dave Boyd
Governor Phil Bredesen talks with workers at the Weyerhaeuser facility shortly before his Jobs Cabinet meeting in Kingsport on Friday.

By Thomas Wilson
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KINGSPORT -- Exceedingly polite.
That's how Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen termed the talk of strictly Sullivan County business and government leaders during a meeting of his Jobs Cabinet held here at the Weyerhaueser paper mill plant on Friday morning.
The governor seemed to be referring to the softballs lobbed his way from the county's civic leaders who talked up the standard needs of jobs and education but didn't challenge the Cabinet for answers.
"Is there a problem or isn't there?" Bredesen asked members of the roundtable culled from education, business and politics. "Where do you need help?"
Bredesen and his 12-member Jobs Cabinet talked with Sullivan County leaders about recent job losses and the opportunities to recruit better paying, higher-skilled jobs and to encourage successful local companies to expand.
A problem with job loss definitely exists in Carter County. During the past two years, Elizabethton has seen more than 600 jobs leave the community. Cendant (220 jobs), Alcoa Extrusions (240 jobs), and Frank Schaffer Publications (75 jobs) have closed their operations. Inland Paperboard & Packaging Inc. (150 jobs) also shut down one of its two operations in the county.
However, only Sullivan County area civic and business representatives had the administration's ear on Friday. The mayors of Kingsport, Bristol and Bluff City along with a cross-section of private sector citizens talked tamely about expanding jobs and bettering educational opportunities.
State Rep. Jason Mumpower, R-Bristol, brought up the needs of rural Northeast Tennessee counties not represented at the Jobs Cabinet on Friday. Mumpower told the governor rural counties with small populations faced an uphill battle in job creation, especially without interstate access and textile-based manufacturing plants now nearly extinct in the South.
"We have lost hundreds of jobs in those counties," said Mumpower, who represents Johnson County. "We need to remember that they need at least a four-lane road in and out so they can get raw materials in and manufactured products out."
Sullivan South High School teacher Margaret Kloninger said she was worried about reduction of vocation programs, K-12 education and the rising responsibilities to public school teachers. "I'd love for Governor Bredesen to come spend a day with me," she said.
Kloninger said only 25 percent of jobs created in the near future would require a four-year college degree. Despite the greater demand for technically-skilled positions, fewer public education classes were being offered, she said.
Kingsport Mayor Jeanette Blazier said regional cooperation existed but said, "it doesn't mean we don't have problems" in economic development.
"The cooperation we now have is largely because our manufacturing problems are so great," she said.
The governor bluntly told meeting attendees the Cabinet could solve any region's problems without knowing what solutions they could offer. "It seems the concern for jobs here is not as high as in other parts of the state," Bredesen said after the meeting. He also said the exclusion of other Northeast Tennessee cities was not intentional, but the logistics of meeting with so many representatives would have been difficult.
"By the time you made the group politically perfect, we would have had 114 people here," he said.
The problems referenced by Blazier weren't remedied any Friday when Eastman Chemical Co. officials announced 600 jobs would be eliminated from its 15,800-employee global work force. Heavy manufacturing continues to deteriorate with the state expecting to pick up only a 7 percent growth rate between 1998 and 2008, according to the Bureau of Economic Research and Analysis at East Tennessee State University.
Carter County has a median household income of $27,371, according to the 2000 Census, compared with $36,360 statewide. As for unemployment, 5.5 percent of Carter County residents and 7.7 percent of Johnson County workers were unemployed in August, compared to 5.1 percent of all Tennesseans, according to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
The Jobs Cabinet has been holding a series of roundtable discussions in communities across the state. Sullivan County was the fourth stop in the "Hands on Tennessee" tour. The first stop was in Lawrence County in July, followed by stops in Haywood and Weakley counties in September. The next meeting is tentatively set for Oct. 14 in Bradley County.
"This was the first visit of the Governor and the Jobs Cabinet to Northeast Tennessee, but it will not be the last," said Lydia Lenker of the governor's communications office.