Education, quality of life essential for municipalities wanting to grow local jobs

TML Communications Specialist

At any given day in downtown Kingsport, between 3,000 and 3,500 students are working to earn degrees ranging from teaching to nursing to welding and accounting. But Kingsport isn’t exactly your traditional college town.
The Kingsport Center for Higher Education downtown is part of a larger institution known as the Kingsport Academic Village, a joint venture between the city and five institutions of higher learning: East Tennessee State University, King University, Lincoln Memorial University, Milligan College, and Northeast State Community College.
With an estimated $87.5 million economic impact between 2008 and 2015, the Academic Village may seem like a unique way to invest in the city’s downtown, but bringing more money into the city coffers wasn’t the main goal of the Academic Village. The main thing Kingsport is investing in is its people.
Kingsport City Manager Jeff Fleming said the Academic Village concept began in 1994 when the city’s largest employer spun-off from its parent company.
“Most of the original industries had either changed hands, downsized or closed. It was a critical point in the planned city’s history,” Fleming said. “Mayor Jeanette Blazier called for an economic summit. The top idea was that ‘higher education equals hired.’ This reflected a deeply engrained local culture that a degree was not important because industrial jobs were plentiful historically. It was time to change the culture. What if we provided free community college to all local high school graduates? What if it was convenient and accessible in downtown Kingsport? So, the idea for the Academic Village began.”
The success of the project inspired other cities to take a closer look at what educational opportunities were available for their workforce.
“Later, Knox Achieves patterned its program after Kingsport’s. Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam became Tennessee’s governor and the concept became Tennessee Achieves, which led to Tennessee Promise. It’s a testament to the power of vision,” Fleming said.
Across Tennessee, municipalities are showing one of the best ways to recruit and expand job offerings in their areas is by investing in the needs of the local workforce.

Allen Borden, deputy commissioner of business, community and rural development with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, said around three-quarters of all new jobs created in the state are created by companies already located in Tennessee.
“There is an old saying that the best customer you’ll ever have is the customer you already have. We definitely believe in that here in Tennessee,” he said. “There is a good reason for that: each year roughly 70 to 75 percent of the jobs we touch at ECD are expansions of existing Tennessee companies. Only about 25 to 30 percent are coming on a year-to-year basis from the recruitment of new companies to Tennessee.”
Between 2012 and 2016, 79 percent of all the jobs created by companies receiving FastTrack grants and located within the corporate limits of Tennessee cities were the result of expanding companies. Between those years, 84 percent of the jobs created in 2012 were the result of expansions – the highest in the five-year period – while 2014 saw the lowest percentage of jobs created by expanding companies at 74 percent.
A 75-25 split between expanding and new companies is what most states hope for, according to Borden. While the bulk of the new jobs in the state come from companies already located in Tennessee, he said it is important to remember all of those expansion jobs come from companies that were once just getting their start in Tennessee as well.
Between 2012 and 2016, companies receiving FastTrack grants and located within the corporate limits of Tennessee municipalities created 71,837 jobs. Of this total, 2015 saw the highest amount of job creation with 18,778 jobs announced in the state. Borden said the state’s yearly average for job creation is between 20,000 and 25,000.
One of the reasons Tennessee has been so successful in recruiting new companies and helping others to expand is because Tennessee cities are becoming more and more involved in the economic development process.
“We could not be as successful as we have been these past few years without a tremendous amount of support, help and work from our local communities,” Borden said. “What we have seen is that the communities that invest the most in themselves are the ones that are the most successful. The communities that are most aligned with their local leadership and look at economic development from a regional standpoint, not just focused within their city limits but on a regional basis and partner with other municipalities and stakeholders in their region are the ones that reap the most success and benefits.”
In order to successfully recruit and retain companies, Borden said communities need three major ingredients: a ready-to-go site able to meet a company’s needs, a workforce in the numbers and skillsets the company needs, and a good quality of life for that workforce.

Before making a major investment in a community, like creating new jobs, business owners and operators want to make sure that the community is a place they and their employees will want to live.
“Obviously, people want to have a life outside of their work and outside of their job,” Borden said. “They want to have things they can do on the weekends. We are a very low-cost state. We are not only a low-cost state for companies to locate in from an operations standpoint, but also a low-cost state to live in. We offer a great quality of life at a very low cost.”
When Saturn decided to open up a new automotive plant in Spring Hill in the early 1990s, the municipality had a population of just around 1,500 people. As of 2016, the city’s population is now at 37,731. Sold to General Motors in 2004, the Spring Hill Manufacturing plant not only changed the face of the city’s economy but also that of neighboring communities.
Spring Hill officials soon found themselves juggling the needs of their booming population and their desire to provide quality city services, like parks and recreation. Kayce Williams, economic development coordinator for the city of Spring Hill, said city leaders had to learn that meeting those needs are an ongoing process.
“The lessons are too many to list, but each one has had significant value,” she said. “If we aren’t learning from our mistakes, we aren’t growing into a better community. We have definitely had to play catch up from the unexpected growth rate we have experienced since the early 90s, but we are so much better equipped for the demands of today’s employers as well as the future requirements for tomorrow’s businesses. We are always improving our current status and constantly putting plans in place to prepare for the future.”
One thing Spring Hill has seen change in the past 20 years is what companies are looking for.
“At one time incentives, land price, and proximity to large services such as a major airport ranked above the amenities a community had to offer. That has shifted,” Williams said. “While those things are still very important, employers are now much more concerned with those quality-of -life items. What was once a conversation that took place well into the negotiating process now takes place in the initial conversations. Companies are very mindful of the happiness of their employees and their families.”
To meet the needs of both companies and the employees they will bring to the community, Williams said Spring Hill tries to create a sense of place within the community.
“Spring Hill has made big strides to improve its infrastructure and offerings. Our newest park, Port Royal Park, is a great example,” Williams said. “We spent two years and $5 million to create a very special place for Spring Hill residents to spend their down-time. We take pride in creating spaces, experiences, and events for people to enjoy life, not just survive it. Parks and recreation is vital to business recruitment. Companies want to see that their employees and their families have amenities available to them when they are not at work.”
Parks and recreation have also proven an important recruitment tool for Kingsport.
“Kingsport has invested millions (past and future) into exceptional regional facilities,” Fleming said. “Bays Mountain Park is the city’s crown jewel. It’s a 3,500 nature preserve, lake, park, planetarium and native wildlife habitats. The Greenbelt is a 9-mile walking/biking path that traverses the city and provides pedestrian access to many neighborhoods, schools, historic sites, shops, medical facilities – all without a motorized vehicle.”
While there may be generational gaps in the groups Kingsport hopes to attract, Fleming said a lot of different generations really want the same things from their communities.
“We concluded that millennials and retirees are interested in many of the same things,” he said. “They want an urban experience and strong downtown. It doesn’t have to be a big city, but they want lofts, breweries, outdoor dining, live entertainment options. They want a work-life balance with quick access to parks, walking/biking trails, swimming, wellness, sports, canoeing/kayaking. They want public art, music, murals, sculptures, and theatre.”
Planning ahead for future growth is also an important part of ensuring that already-established quality of life will remain top notch.
“We have also been working hard over the past 10 years to put very specific plans in place to shape the future of Spring Hill,” Williams said. “Whether it’s planning for future greenways and trails to building capital for major road projects, we put things in motion then to be ready for tomorrow.”
Healthcare and its availability can also be an important factor when businesses determine what sort of quality of life a municipality can give their employees.
“Access to good healthcare, top notch first responders, and a proactive approach to public safety within our city are huge benefits when presenting Spring Hill to potential businesses, and minutes count,” William said. “We fought hard to bring Tri-Star ER to our city along with Maury Regional, Vanderbilt Health, and Centennial. They all have a very solid presence here and they give back constantly. No matter what the event or cause, our healthcare businesses are there to support it.”
Fleming said Kingsport has taken a role as a pilot community for several health and safety initiatives.
“Healthy Kingsport is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating a community that actively embraces healthy living by promoting wellness, enhancing infrastructure, and influencing policy,” he said. “Our work is accomplished by virtue of the Collective Impact Model–a best practice for solving complex, pressing social issues. This model is designed around a backbone organization – Healthy Kingsport –which serves as the convener of many organizations working toward a common agenda with shared measurements, mutually reinforcing activities, and continuous communication.”
More and more, Borden said companies are also starting to realize they also play a role in ensuring a good quality of life for their workforce.
“Companies have realized they are competing for this workforce as well,” he said. “Each one of the premiere companies wants to be that employer of choice within their community. There is a correlation to the companies that invest in the communities they locate in and the ones that are good corporate citizens are also the ones that are the most successful themselves.”

As jobs become more high-tech and companies more diverse, education is playing a bigger role than ever in why companies choose certain areas. Having an educated workforce as well as knowing future generations of employees will be trained with the skill sets they need is essential for economic success.
To make sure they have a well-educated workforce, Borden said the state of Tennessee has also realized the power of education as economic development.
“Education has really become an important link with economic development, and the reason for that is workforce development has become such a major driver for successful economic development,” Borden said. “Very early on, Gov. Bill Haslam recognized for us to be successful with economic development in the long-term we needed to have a very strong relationship between education, workforce development and economic development. Out of this thought and philosophy first came the Tennessee Promise. To strengthen that, the Legislature last year passed Tennessee Reconnect which also provided up to two years of free tuition for any adult who would like to go back to school to a TCAT or community college to enhance their skill set.”
From its very beginning, Fleming said Kingsport had to play against some of the stereotypes outsiders had about its region.
“Kingsport is a modern case study in economic development. The city was literally carved out of rural Appalachia,” he said. The town founders knew that in order to attract companies from New York and New England, they had to convince the decision-makers that their families could access quality educational opportunities. So, they hired Columbia University to develop an educational master plan. Today, it’s no different, but now companies are competing for global talent.”
The city runs its own school system, and Fleming said schools can sometimes help decide whether or not employees and company owners decide to live in the area.
“Top employees can work anywhere. So, it is imperative that they can visualize living in a place where their children can access a world class education,” he said. “Many times, the track record and rigorous curriculum offered by Kingsport City Schools is the deciding factor. KCS is collocated with the Chamber of Commerce, which captures the strong linkage between business and education.”
Having a good foundation and good school systems can be another quality of life factor businesses are looking for. Williams said the school systems in Spring Hill are one of the area’s major sources of pride.
“Spring Hill is located in two counties, Williamson and Maury. Williamson County has one of the best school systems in the country, and Maury County schools are right there with them,” she said. “Neither school system ever settles for ‘good enough.’ They are always striving to be better, be more involved, more innovative, and more resourceful. The focus they have put on our children is remarkable. It’s personal. It shows in everything they do. That testimony speaks volumes to potential business and those looking for a new place to raise their family.”
Borden said many companies are getting directly involved in education.
“We are at a point nowadays were companies are getting more involved in education, in workforce training and workforce development, because it is such an important ingredient for their success,” he said. “Now, they know it is so important to have the workers they need to put out their product or their service. They are working with communities, with the state, and local governments. This is a great thing to see, and it’s turning into a full-blown partnership on all levels, which is what it will take to meet the workforce challenges of the future.”
Some companies have even helped design curriculum and donated learning materials to local schools so that prospective employees in their area receive on-the-job-style training before they even graduate.
“One of the great advantages we feel we have with both our TCATs and our community colleges is being very nimble,” he said. “We want to be able to do a lot of listening to our customers, which are these companies who will be employing these students. We want to make sure we are designing curriculum that meets their needs and the types of jobs they have in these different facilities. They aren’t learning some curriculum from 10 years ago that isn’t going to help anyone.”
Kingsport’s downtown campus of its Academic Village has 3,000 students in five buildings that focus on educational opportunities in higher education, applied technology, health professions, manufacturing, and automotive programs.
“The city of Kingsport invested more than $17 million of its own money – beyond state and federal grants,” Fleming said. “Northeast State CC is the managing partner. Curricula are chosen based on interaction with local companies’ needs. The idea is to graduate as near to debt-free as possible and enter the local workforce with a well-paying job. Local residents with an associate’s degree or higher has doubled – and so has median family income.”
Williams said many of Spring Hill’s secondary schools have strong relationships with local companies wanting to grow the local workforce.
“We have several post-high school and secondary education opportunities offered at the Northfield Workforce Development Center from Columbia State Community College, Martin Methodist College, and the Tennessee College of Applied Technology, but they don’t just educate,” Williams said. “Through their partnership with so many major employers in the region, they train and place students directly with those employers needing those special skills. Students enter the programs knowing that we will do everything in our power to help them succeed not just as a student, but as a skilled equipped member of the workforce. Companies looking at Spring Hill know that they can find the employees they need right here.”
Companies aren’t just waiting until students graduate high school before getting involved in their education, and many students aren’t waiting for high school graduation to begin learning the skills they will need for a future career.
“Some of the high schools in our state offer dual enrollment, which is a program that allows high school students to continue with their high school education but at the same time take courses at one of our TCATs or community colleges,” Borden said. “In some cases and depending on how aggressive the student can be, they can end up graduating from four years of high school with a high school degree and TCAT certificate or even a two-year associate’s degree. In high school, they have programs for students and parents to give them an idea of what a manufacturing job is like in today’s times and what the different positions pay, which can be very well-paid positions.”
Borden said manufacturers are even reaching out to pre-teens and tweens to get them thinking about future careers and the education they will need.
“One of the things we are trying to do is get our students more familiar with and involved with manufacturing at an early age,” he said. “There are familiarization tours that are beginning now in a lot of our communities at a very early age, even later years of grammar school on into middle school and high school. Students are taken and given plant tours. There are programs where companies come into the schools to provide programs.”
Fleming said that cities who want to provide a better quality of life for both employees and prospective companies have to be willing to try new things on their own.
“If you believe in your city then be willing to invest in yourself, don’t expect the state or federal government to do everything for you,” he said. “Take calculated risks. Ask your local companies what they hear from the hiring/recruiting process. What are the candidate’s perception of the community? What can you do to change the perception? What is beyond your control?”
Williams also agreed that the best thing a city can do it’s invest in itself.
“Don’t limit that to roads or parks; it’s everything,” she said. “It’s quality and variety of housing, public safety, good planning practices, a well-written code, workforce development, education, retail options, and city services. It’s a lot and it all takes money and time, but it is achievable. Ask for input from your citizens, reach out to other cities for ideas, and put plans in place to prepare, but don’t follow everyone else’s map. Find out what makes your city unique and use that as your northern star. Then, no matter how long it takes, execute that vision. We don’t all have to get there the same way, but we all can get there.”