County leaders work toward solving economic problems

By Megan R. Harrell

Star Staff
mharrell@starhq.com

  
As 2002 draws to a close, recent economic setbacks have caused many in the county to reflect over a year that has seen its share of highs and lows. The closing of Frank Shaffer Publications, Alcoa, and Cendant have resulted in over 500 jobs lost in Carter County in the last 18 months, and have left concerned members of the community looking to their elected officials for answers.
   Since Cendant announced its intent to close its doors as of Jan. 24, 2003, the county executive, city manager, and economic development recruiter have come underneath the proverbial public microscope. While local residents are concerned Carter County may never recover from the recent blows to its economy, local officials maintain they are doing what they can to offset the damage.
   County Executive Dale Fair said the Economic Development Board (EDB) has recently met with several businesses in an effort to bring additional industries to the area. He expressed some disappointment and frustration that none of the businesses have made official commitments to move to Carter County.
   "The city and county are working very closely. Charlie Stahl and I are meeting up front with them, and I don't know how much they have done that in the past. We want them to know that there is a team approach. That it is not just one person," Fair said. "I think we are going to have some luck soon here. It has not come yet though."
   Carter County must compete with 94 other counties in the state for new industries. Fair said the area's mountainous terrain and lack of land available for industrial development make it difficult to bring large industries into the county. He said Carter loses industries to other counties, such as Greene, that have topography which is easier to develop.
   Fair capitalizes on the county's aesthetic beauty, and people's desire to re-locate to a more rural area when trying to woo potential businesses. He stated that Carter County is ideal for businesses' employees because it is conveniently located near large cities, yet employees can still enjoy a country home life.
   "We have a jewel here. One of our biggest selling points when we are talking to companies is the quality of life here, and the availability to everything people are used to in a big city with three large surrounding cities," Fair said.
   The reciprocal relationship between Carter County and the Tri-Cities is another factor Fair believes is vital to attracting businesses. He said the EDB is able to show companies that a strong workforce can be tapped into from surrounding communities as well as Carter County.
   Fair admits steps could be taken to improve the county's approach to recruiting industry. He stated the biggest need is to have a comprehensive and aggressive plan of attack laid out for each individual business prior to meeting with their executives.
   Fair plans on holding an industrial development workshop for city and county officials after the first of the year. He would like to have an SWOT, (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis done on the county's economic development plan.
   "It is a vision meeting, but before you start being visionary you have to start asking where are we today, and what caused us to get here, and what could really swamp us," Fair said. "You have to identify those, and some of it is not very complimentary when you talk about our weaknesses, but it has to be put on the table."
   Educating the public on the recruitment process is another area Fair believes needs to be improved. He plans on holding public forums during months the county commission does not meet in order hear the public's concerns, and offer information about local governmental, and recruitment processes.
   "My job in the first year is to first educate myself, then to educate the public, because facts are important. Facts kill rumor mills," Fair said. "I think it is part of my responsibility to make sure people are knowledgeable of the facts."
   Although the county is not able to make any announcements of new industry coming to the area, officials maintain the economic outlook is not as bleak as it may seem. Roy Merryman is a member of the EDB and believes the county has effective plans in place for attracting new business.
   "We met a week ago and have several options right now," Merryman said. "We have some plans that are very good, and we have a good outlook right now."
   Merryman said the board uses many of the same tactics other counties in Tennessee use when trying to recruit industries. He said giving companies a tax break for locating their businesses in the area is one of the biggest parts of the county's recruitment plan.
   The officials stated that the county is close to securing a deal with a company that will provide more jobs than Cendant, but they have to be able to prove that the workforce will be available to supply the demand for employees.
   The county executive believes the area has a good infrastructure with its roads system, and the railroad line local officials are working to keep in operation. He added that the local workforce is outstanding, and there are still several businesses in operation at the Industrial Park located off Hwy. 91.
   "I don't have a whole lot of positive, but just a few years ago the industrial park was mothballed. Today, there are 2,000 to 3,000 people that go into that area every day," County Executive Dale Fair said.