Delivering on a campaign pledge from last year, Gov. Bill Haslam has unveiled a jobs initiative that calls for restructuring the Department of Economic and Community Development.
Haslam and ECD Chairman Bill Hagerty jointly announced the plan Wednesday, which is predicated on capitalizing on existing resources and concentrating staff at regional offices, which the administration calls “jobs base camps.”
Haslam said during his campaign for governor that he wanted to take a more regionalized approach the department’s work. There were immediate concerns raised by his election opponent, Mike McWherter, that such an approach would add to bureaucracy in state government. But the plan unveiled Wednesday would actually reduce the staff at the department from 203 people to 132 by the end of this year.
Haslam said the plan is the result of a “fairly intensive study about the best way we can help create jobs in Tennessee.”
He reiterated both his stated goal of making the state the best for high-quality jobs in the Southeast and that he does not believe jobs can be legislated, which has put him at odds with Democrats in the Legislature. He also reiterated his intention of reducing regulations that the administration believes impede business growth.
Hagerty said it took 45 days to complete the plan, known as “Jobs4TN.”
The jobs base camps will fall into nine separate regions, where each center’s leadership will be a one-stop shop to pull resources together in an effort to boost the job market.
The governor unveiled a series of charts that show the organizational structure of the plan, but he is expected to introduce on May 5 at the Tennessee Next Conference in Nashville a detailed blueprint meant to improve coordination among innovative programs across the state.
“We’re going to be leveraging R&D assets we have here in the state of Tennessee,” Hagerty said. “Think Oak Ridge National Labs, the University of Tennessee, St. Jude’s in Memphis, Vanderbilt.
“We have tremendous research assets here in the state. We’re going to be focused more on commercializing, on transferring technology from those assets, on early-stage capital, and on entrepreneurial activity here in the state.”
The plan also puts priorities on six industries it calls “clusters” where Tennessee is already considered to have assets. Those include automotive; chemicals and plastics; transportation; logistics and distribution services; business services; health care; and advanced manufacturing and energy technologies.
Haslam said the review of the Department of Economic and Community Development will be similar in other departments, focusing on strategy and structure.
Haslam said most of the new jobs in Tennessee are coming from existing businesses.
“We’re not going to quit recruiting outside our borders, but we are going to make certain we put the right focus and energy and dollars where the results are,” Haslam said.
Hagerty said it’s important to let existing businesses in the state know they’re wanted here, as opposed to having other states lure them away.
The state has made headlines in recent years by landing huge deals such as the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, the Hemlock Semiconductor site in Clarksville and the Wacker Chemie plant in Bradley County. A megasite in Haywood County is geared for a similar big-ticket project, although there have been disagreements recently between the administration and Democrats in the Legislature on when and how to apply funding to the site.
Haslam said Wednesday his administration will continue attracting large relocation projects but he wanted to keep in perspective the importance of growth of the existing business base.
“The market has gotten so competitive, and what states are willing to do in terms of incentives makes it to where I think it’s incumbent upon us to say, ‘It’s one thing to go out and recruit that business, but is that a good investment for our citizens?’” he said.
As for the reductions in the Department of Economic and Community Development, Haslam said the state has been assisting with local planning for local governments.
“We just asked the question: Is that the right function for state government, to be helping with subdivision planning for local government?” Haslam said.
That approach also squares with what Haslam said repeatedly on the campaign trail, that the first question should be whether the state should be doing something in order to evaluate its performance.