“Cooperation is key” was the central message brought to county civic leaders from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.
The Weakley County Joint Economic and Community Development Board and the Weakley County Chamber of Commerce met at 6:30 p.m. Thursday night at the University of Tennessee at Martin with civic leaders to discuss growth opportunities for the county.
Over forty people attended the dinner, with a keynote address from Joe Barker, assistant commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.
Andy Page, president of the Weakley County Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Joint Economic and Community Development Board, opened the meeting by giving an overview of where the county is today in terms of economic development.
“We have a lot to be thankful for in Weakley County, but there are some concerns,” Page said.
Page said that it was important to realize that the last major employer that came to Weakley County was MTD in 1995. Page also said the county has lost about 3,000 industrial jobs, and that the county’s unemployment rate is around 7.4 percent.
Joe Barker, assistant commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development has made numerous stops across Tennessee, talking about how communities and counties should work together toward the same aims.
A key step in the plan is for community leaders to recognize the assets the county has, not the ones it desires. Barker suggested that some communities “are trying to compete out of their league.”
“What if we focused what we are doing on what our assets are?” Barker said, speaking of such things as natural resources, tourism and higher education in Weakley County.
Barker also spoke of a proposed “Economic Development Leadership Institute,” a place where community leaders from across Tennessee can come to learn the latest strategies for remaining competitive in this changing economy.
While saying it might not work for every situation, Barker spoke of how Crockett County had voted the previous evening to institute county-wide zoning as a measure of communities and county working together.
“It’s a local decision, and it is the local people who must lay whatever political divisions and side and start thinking about economic growth,” Barker said.
“It is our goal that all 95 counties have a strategic economic development plan in place,” Barker said. “But in order for it to be worth more than the paper it is printed on, it has to be implemented fully.”
He also said that many communities have individual economic development councils, all typically having the same aim. Coordinated efforts, Barker said, were necessary to spur economic growth.
One of the objectives, broadband internet in every Tennessee community “is vitally important to recruiting the jobs of the future,” Barker said.
UT Martin Chancellor Nick Dunagan closed the meeting by identifying three of the main points discussed.
“First, the way we do economic development is changing, and we must change with it,” Dunagan said. “Second, we have to partner with each other to accomplish our goals.”
Dunagan again reiterated Barker’s comments about the state willing “to help only those communities that are willing to help themselves.”
“We have to be able to look at the way we do things and be ready to say that we have to do it a different way,” Dunagan said. “When Weakley County succeeds, the better off it is for our students, our children and our grandchildren.”
More information about the Tennessee Economic Growth Strategy can be found on the Web at http://www.state.tn.us/ecd/.