Blount Partnership was founded to foster a relationship between the business community and the elected leadership of the county. Its primary mission is to diversify the local economy, to retain businesses and attract new ones and to create jobs.
Blount County, Tennessee, in the last few years, has seen phenomenal growth. A whirlwind of activity and development is currently taking place in this county with a population of approximately 123,000.
Through the years, the chamber of commerce oversaw most of the economic activities in the county. It was created after the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) moved to town and became the largest company employer.
“In 1969, the Aluminum Company of America had ratified the charter that the government needed to be more active in economic development and adopted language that was passed by the Tennessee legislature to allow local governments to take control of their economies and do business recruitment,” says Blount Partnership’s president and CEO Bryan Daniels.
The chamber urged local governments to adopt this statewide legislation and create an official economic development agency with its mission of diversifying the economy. It was passed and included in with the chamber of commerce.
In the late seventies, based on the success with the industrial board and the chamber, it founded a private board that started with tourism recruitment. It married that tourism recruitment arm with the partnership one, and thus Blount Partnership is really four organizations: the Blount Chamber of Commerce, the Blount Chamber Foundation the Economic Development Board of Blount County and the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority.
The community has been fully funding its economic development board for several decades. “The economic development board is one agency for the county and all the municipalities within it. In this way, you don’t have each city or county trying to do its own recruitment. It’s all bunched together into one organization. By pooling these resources, the board can do much more than it could separately. This is one unique aspect of one of the oldest partnerships in the state.”
There has been phenomenal growth within Blount County which is attributable to how the community and the state have been investing in infrastructure and education. Growth, especially over the last five years, has been phenomenal. Before the recession, local governments continued to invest by buying up and developing property and putting in place or upgrading all necessary infrastructure including roads, water, sewer and telecommunications systems.
It is also building mixed-use developments and is embedding retail and housing builds around these developments. A trend toward people wanting walk to work or be within a short commute versus commuting from the suburbs has led to a resurgence of clustered developments, and most of the county’s parks are designed with that in mind. So, when the recession hit, these assets were in place and stifled the economic blow. Since then, the community has surged forward at an accelerated pace.
“Just within the last five years, we will have announced eighteen new projects from headquarters, R&D, manufacturing and back office operations, totaling over $1.6 billion with 4,000 new jobs. Just got an economic impact study done today which assesses that there are no counties in Tennessee that are as poised or growing as quick as we are.”
The economic impact study was done by Mark L. Burton of the University of Tennessee. “Over the past twenty-five years, I have performed dozens of economic impact analysis,” he writes. “This work has encompassed a wide array of target projects and policies, ranging from small retail developments to multi-billion dollar infrastructure initiatives. With this background, I have rarely seen economic development activity as successful as what I observe in Blount County.”
In the last decade, the local community and the state have taken on improvements to education. Blount County has always been proud of its high school standing. The assessments by the Higher Education Commission of local school systems rank Blount as either first or second in the state and amongst the top twenty percent of systems in the U.S. It is not just about public education, however. Great strides have been made in the community’s investment in technical training.
“Across the country, there has been a psychological shift over the last ten years from the perception that technical education and jobs are undesirable. Now it is seen in a positive light, with well-paying jobs.”
In 2005, the business community came together through the chamber of commerce and provided scholarships. For students from the community who agreed to further technical education, the partnership would pay one hundred percent of the tuition. Funding is contingent upon that student coming back to work in the community for a period of time. It was called Blount Achieves. This was part of the Governor Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative which aims to see fifty-five percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college certificate. Any citizen of Tennessee who wants to get a two-year technical degree will be fully funded.
“One of the first things we are doing is to organically grow our workforce within our school systems. Then, in the recruitment of talent, we are actually working with our local industry and asking them what are the local hotbeds of trades-folks, so that we can advertise in those communities across the country and encourage them to move into the Blount County area.”
“We are working very closely with guidance counselors, and not just in the community colleges or universities, but we are going further by going into high schools and even junior high. We are trying to intercept students even earlier to help them get a head start trying to decide what kind of field would interest them and telling them how they can have a good road map for a good job.”
The county has been creating job fairs and holding educational seminars. Its representatives will go into schools to talk about the types of jobs that exist or skill sets that are needed for those positions. They are constantly encouraging students who are graduating from technical schools, or even universities.
Blount County has been doing this for the past five to six years and has had some successes in highlighting certain students who have been able to get into careers early. The Alcoa Foundation has helped by funding student internships so young people can gain an understanding what different manufacturing or trade jobs are like. This also allows employers to identify potential upcoming talent.
A new aircraft facility is being built by Cirrus Aircraft at McGhee Tyson Airport. The center will support Cirrus Aircraft sales, marketing and customer service. Cirrus designs and manufactures small aircraft and is trying to make flying safer with its whole-airplane parachute that gently lowers the aircraft to the ground in an emergency. To date, the system has saved the lives of 107 people.
“What will happen is that these planes are finished out at this facility to the customer’s specs. The customer will be here for at least two weeks to receive training in their simulators, and they check that on the aircraft to fly it away.”
There will also be a maintenance facility for the company that is part of an initiative by the governor to make the state aviation industry more robust. The 134th International Guard is stationed here, and there are several aerospace companies based in the community. The aviation sector includes other industries with a direct relation to the military presence and the University of Tennessee.
“But, a lot of the activity we’ve had in this region is scientific-based, and that is due to the R&D and Department of Energy dollars that are coming into this region with Oakridge National Labs and the University of Tennessee.”
Twenty years from now Bryan foresees that much progress will have been made. “We want to be one of the higher-income areas in our state and the southeast. We feel that there are going to be a lot of technical-based jobs here and scientific jobs, on growth patterns that are occurring. So, you will see us continue to foster the sites and builds in this community, and we will support those to the best of our ability.”