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How East Tennessee stacks up against the world

Earlier this month, I attended the very interesting “East Tennessee Competes” conference sponsored by Plan ET. The moderator from the Southern Growth Policies Board, plus local economic development recruiters, local business leaders, and various community leaders provided perspectives on how the Knoxville metro area (including Oak Ridge) stacks up against the rest of the world in respect to things that matter to businesses considering new locations.
My notes say that site selection considers four key factors: Safety. Education.  Health.  Housing.
Health isn’t just health care. It’s also quality of life. In fact, healthy lifestyle is more important than access to care. Get people outdoors. Greenways, walking paths, etc. Our region stacks up very well in this area, but we need to promote it better in the economic development arena.  Also, we need to use it more. The crowd was asked to grade our region on healthy lifestyle, and gave our region’s citizens Cs and Ds for healthy lifestyle.
Education pays. There’s a $1.2 million lifetime salary  premium for a postsecondary degree. Our region has educational bright spots, but overall education is a weakness in the area. To prepare students for the workforce, Pellissippi State Community College is pushing career tech at that precollege level, as well as at PSCC..
Business community needs to identify the skills they need. That’s happening here. PSCC has put the 110 needs of auto industry into an online testing tool.
Businesses want quantifiable credentials.Good teachers are critical. Data are needed to know where each kid is and what they need.People all over the south are looking at Tennessee to see our innovation in K-12 education. Tennessee is truly a leader.
That leadership includes adoption of common core standards.The housing boom resulted in growth patterns everywhere that weren’t good for residents or government services: low density, narrow streets, etc. There should be a mix of housing options and socioeconomic status within neighborhoods.Someone asked about how business prospects react to homelessness. The surprising was that some businesses ask about how a community addresses its homeless population, because it’s a metric of how the community addresses its needs and problems. Cities and metro areas that do a good job addressing homelessness are also good places for corporate America to do business — who knew? Permanent supportive housing for homeless makes economic sense.Quality of life is critical for business . Business wants to be in sustainable communities.
This region is no longer competing across county lines. (Is that really true?)

Sites for large developments are a big challenge in this area, due to topography. Air quality is a challenge in recruitment.
Lifestyle initiatives here can be a big differentiator in recruitment. Urban wilderness project is big for Innovation Valley. (I wonder if Innovation Valley is sufficiently informed about Oak Ridge’s outdoor assets: Haw Ridge, North Boundary Trail, North Ridge Trail, rowing course, extensive greenbelts, Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement, etc.)

Change is coming in air travel. To increase their cost efficiency, airlines are giving up the 50 -seat planes and will be using more big planes (again). McGhee Tyson Airport probably will lose some flight frequency (that is, we won’t have as many flights), but will have the same number of airplane seats. Some other cities will lose service altogether because they can’t support big planes.

Someone said that airfares are a “killer” for our region in business recruitment. Knoxville is mostly a business airport, which means higher air fares. There’s not much leisure travel here. We need lower fares (to increase leisure travel and attract business prospects).

Asthma incidence is a challenge. Air quality is better, but asthma is up.

First question about trails is always about safety. More crime in the mall than on trails.

Parks are one of the most democratic things we do.

Airport is a pretty diverse place. Suggestion to document traveler diversity on the website.

Transit, access to greenways,  etc., are being asked about more by business prospects that Innovation Valley talks to. Van pools. Zip car.

Carole Evans said this region should market itself as “one big playground”. Pursue low hanging fruit in energy savings.

Energy is a regional strength for Innovation Valley recruitment. The prospects of small modular reactors, carbon fiber, and advanced materials are a positive. Innovation valley needs to hear from people.

Knoxville has been identified as one of three US metros to have recovered to pre-2008 employment status.

Business sees low educational attainment and inequity within the region as disadvantages. Alcoa (the company) thinks the region needs more diversity. The Alcoa rolling mill is cost-competitive, but energy costs here weren’t globally competitive for smelter.

The region needs more skilled workforce, such as electricians. Not enough young people are coming up to replace the skilled workers who are retiring. Skilled workforce is an issue for Denso.

Wampler is marketing globally. It costs less for Denso to produce product here than in Japan. Alcoa thinks globally. Cheap natural gas is now an advantage for the US.

ORNL’s impact on the region include its being major employer. Subcontracting is also a direct impact. R&D is a source of impact. ORNL has affected the industry mix in the whole region. ORNL is now working systematically to improve regional education.

Murray says education is economic development. Need people with communication skills in addition to tech skills. Still not seeing enough girls in STEM. Wampler is much more automated; this changes the workforce need.

Alcoa says companies need to emphasize sustainability. Reduce footprint. Wampler is pursuing sustainable energy.

Is “Innovation Valley” a valid brand? Alcoa says yes; energy is critical to their business and it’s happening here. ORNL’s Thom Mason says we have technology, but not they way some people think of technology these days because it’s not social media and it’s not much biotech. Our tech assets include high performance computing.

Panelists were asked “Do elected officials get it?” Wampler got government help for its solar project. Alcoa had good cooperation when the smelter was going to shut down.

Anecdotes from the panelists: When Anton of the Alcoa company moved into a global job for the corporation, he could choose between this area and several other cities, and he stayed here because his wife prefers Tennessee. You can find the best here, but it’s a mixed bag…. not all of it’s good.

The region is not doing as well as we should on education of workforce. Do well on quality of life. Region has good business infrastructure, including rail and barge.

Wampler’s father used to say he’d rather die by hanging in east Tennessee than die a natural death anywhere else.

Need education and diversity.
Thom Mason: a lot can be done in education outside of public schools.

We’re a whole lot better off than a lot of southern cities.

Need to think and plan long-term.

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One Comment

  1. Kit says:

    Thanks for posting this Ellen. Good info and some new nuggets about the homeless being a way to “judge” how a city is using its compassion. I would think how we treat our elders is also a criteria since the baby boomers are the largest generation in history and they will all be looking for places to retire. Florida (I speak from experience) is getting over crowded and no one is looking at the water table and how it cannot support many more without 7 or 8 hurricanes bringing lots of water to the region. So places like Georgia or Tennessee need to promo their abundance of water. Thanks for keeping me in the loop. We are in Orlando right now….

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