With one eye on the national economy that could stunt anything they do, economic development officials in the state are meticulously plunging ahead with a detailed regional jobs base plan, one of the key elements of Gov. Bill Haslam’s overall job creation agenda.
Each of nine districts has a director and staff in place. They have submitted initial plans regarding job creation in their specific regions, and Commissioner of Economic and Community Development Bill Hagerty will be working with them over next several days to finalize those strategies.
Hagerty gave a status report on the process last week during a “Meet the Commissioner” segment of the Governor’s Conference on Economic Development.
According to Hagerty, Haslam and the commissioner have taken the top 100 employers in the state and gradually found ways to meet with them. Hagerty told the conference he and the governor are roughly 75 percent of the way through that group, hosting business leaders at the Capitol, the governor’s mansion, the governor’s office or the commissioner’s office. Or state officials have gone to the employers.
Meanwhile, the regional job directors are doing the same at the next level of businesses in their respective regions, all with the overriding premise of the Haslam jobs program — that most of the growth in jobs in Tennessee is from existing businesses, not relocations.
The nine regional camps mirror the Tennessee Development Districts, associations of local governments working together on issues like planning and infrastructure. But the Haslam “job base camps” are new for the Department of Economic and Community Development, a spokesman said. One entire session of the Governor’s Conference last week was devoted to the regional approach, with three concurrent breakout sessions, each hosting three of the nine regions.
“I think what you’ll see as we implement these strategic plans is a direct outreach to you and your team,” Hagerty told one of the participants at the conference. “They will be working on calling programs for existing businesses, making sure our incentives are lining up and being conveyed properly to companies there in your area, so every expansion that happens in Tennessee stays in Tennessee.”
Haslam’s overall JOBS4TN plan uses large established businesses to identify clusters, such as prominent names like Volkswagen and Nissan for the automotive industry, but includes components down the line to the INCITE program for innovation, including an element for helping entrepreneurs. The keynote speaker at the conference was Scott Case, a founding executive of Priceline and CEO of the Startup America Partnership.
At every turn, however, both Haslam and Hagerty have cautioned audiences about the issues in the national economy hovering over any state activity.
Haslam told the conference Tennessee is “well positioned to compete.”
But he warned, “We have to all be realistic. This is a very difficult environment we’re in the middle of right now. As much as we’re going to try to distinguish ourselves and differentiate ourselves in Tennessee, we are subject to the national economy.
“That being said, we can do something about that. We can’t just say, ‘Well, the national economy is bad. We’re stuck with living with that.’ We can do something about that in Tennessee, and we’re doing it. We’re doing it by aggressively going out and selling Tennessee and aggressively selling the communities you’re a part of.”
Ted Townsend, who heads the Greater Memphis district for ECD, said the strategy has momentum.
“A lot of work has gone into these plans,” Townsend said. “We have reached out to our stakeholders to find out what we’re doing right, what we need to improve on and what’s been missed.
“We’re sitting there across the desk from businesses that are facing challenges every day. We understand the economic market and what that presents us.”
Cary Vaughn, director of the Southwest Tennessee region, said the top priority for him is to work with local partners to help market the Haywood County megasite, which is looking for a client. Vaughn said he wants a website that will keep local people informed on a regular basis about the status of the site and eventually have signage to identify the megasite and the nearby solar farm, which some motorists on I-40 believe is the megasite.
While Vaughn said another priority is to meet with the top 50 employers in the region by the end of the calendar year, he also wants to work with public/private partners on entrepreneurship.
Allen Borden, director of the Northeast Tennessee camp, said recently the strengths in his region are similar to those in other parts of the state, including a dedicated workforce. He made particular mention of RCAM, the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing, launched during the Bredesen administration, in Kingsport, as an asset. The center provides job training, linking people seeking work to employers who have openings but lack a skilled talent pool.
“One of our major charges from the governor and Commissioner Hagerty is to focus on existing business and industry, so we have a very aggressive business outreach program, where we literally go out every day and we’re meeting with our region’s existing businesses and industries,” Borden said.
“We’re just asking them, ‘What can we do a better job on in making the state and our region a better climate for you to continue to grow, continue to invest more dollars in Tennessee and create additional jobs for Tennesseans?'”
The nine regions and their directors are:
- Northwest Tennessee — Blake Swaggart (731) 437-9443, Blake.Swaggart@tn.gov
- Southwest Tennessee — Cary Vaughn (731) 803-9301, Cary.Vaughn@tn.gov
- Greater Memphis — Ted Townsend (901) 299-2529, Ted.Townsend@tn.gov
- Northern Middle Tennessee — Reggie Mudd (615) 957-2695, Reggie.Mudd@tn.gov
- Southern Middle Tennessee — Jamie Stitt (931) 652-2712, Jamie.Stitt@tn.gov
- Upper Cumberland — Rebecca Smith (931) 252-8088, Rebecca.Smith@tn.gov
- East Tennessee — Kirk Huddleston (865) 777-4651, Kirk.Huddleston@tn.gov
- Northeast Tennessee — Allen Borden (423) 737-4522, Allen.Borden@tn.gov
- Southeast Tennessee — Patsy Hazlewood (423) 305-5423, Patsy.Hazelwood@tn.gov