Kingsport mayor talks municipal growth in the 21st Century

BY LINDA BRYANT

Mayor John Clark of Kingsport decided to pursue public service in 2012 after realizing that he needed more in his life than the stress-filled life of a corporate executive.
“I came home after an exhausting day, and my wife looked at me and said, ‘You look worn out.’ I answered back, “I need more balance in my life — something outside of my work in the medical manufacturing device industry.”

Clark’s wife, Etta, supported that notion and suggested an introduction to the then-mayor, thinking her husband’s business background might help with the city’s economic development. As it turns out, there was an opening on the city’s board of mayor and aldermen, and Clark was asked to fill the position.
The Pennsylvania native decided to run for his first two-year term as mayor in 2015 and was reelected in early July 2017. Clark, who has lived in Kingsport for more than 20 years, is now officially retired after 37 years in the medical manufacturing device industry. Although he approaches his mayorship as a full-time job, his $3,000-a-year compensation doesn’t reflect it.

But that doesn’t bother Clark, who says he’s delighted to work for the city of 53,000 in Northeast Tennessee.
“I backed off from my real income earning to spend more time with this community service opportunity,” Clark said. “It has been very gratifying. This has been the best job I have ever had, and I’m happy to do it.”

Clark gives credit to his background as a chess player for helping him succeed as mayor.
“Being a chess player has helped because your mind is trained to do several things,” he said. “You have to see the big board, and you have to anticipate your opponent’s moves. You have to take in several moves ahead. All those attributes have truly helped me when I’m out there recruiting and promoting our city.”

TT&C: Tell me about your background.
JC: I grew up outside of Philadelphia, Pa., but I went to school and graduated from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I also met my wife there. She is a Tennessean — born and raised on a dairy farm in Rogersville. After college graduation, she went on to law school at UT. While she was doing that, I was hired by Dupont, a corporation based in Wilmington, Del. We got married after my wife graduated from law school, and DuPont moved us to Northern California to start my career with them. Seven years later, we moved back to Delaware. We ended up in Kingsport in 1995. At the time, the reason why my company transferred me down here was because I had been asked to manage a sales organization in the Southeast. I had to live near an airport because I would be traveling a great deal Monday through Friday. It took me to Kingsport. We haven’t relocated again and have called Kingsport home for the last 22 years. I have two grown daughters. We moved here when they were in preschool. They went through our school systems here in Northeast Tennessee and had a wonderful experience.

TT&C: How does the structure of the government work in Kingsport?
JC: In Kingsport, we have a council-manager form of government. The council consists of seven citizens elected at-large — and on a nonpartisan basis — for four-year staggered terms. The mayor’s position is a two-year term. The management side of the government is a professional organization that includes a city manager, who is like the CEO of a business. That position has a management team as well, and then there’s an organization of more than 800 employees. Most of them work within four or five different departments — police, fire, public works, and parks and recreation. The administration and management team are responsible for the performance of those individuals. There is continuity in our form of government. The city management organization [remains stable], while there’s variability when it comes to the seven citizens that are elected by the public.
Many smaller cities like Kingsport have a council-manager form of government. In larger cities the mayor and the city manager are the same. Under that model a strong mayor brings in his or her team of people to manage the city departments. This can work well, but I prefer the council-manager form of government.

TT&C: As a former alderman — and now a mayor — can you name accomplishments you’re particularly proud of?
JC: I believe the role of city government is to create a great environment that allows the private sector to flourish. There are four ‘customers’ I feel are part of the private sector — residents, businesses, developers and visitors. The city’s role is to set an environment that allows the city to be successful within those key customer areas. It is also the city’s role to provide the highest quality of life possible for constituents.  The last two years we have tried really hard to achieve the philosophy of maintaining our small town feel and values. We’re a place where everybody knows your name, but at the same time we offer our residents big city opportunities. This is a hard thing to do, but I think it’s what makes Kingsport unique in terms of a place to live, work and raise a family. One of the key components of making this happen is bringing the community together to embrace the challenges moving forward. We focus on several improvement areas we can all get behind. We did that about 20 months ago, and it was called the OneKingsport Summit. The event was a gathering that brought together two attributes that we have in this town. One is what we call the ‘Kingsport spirit,” the coming together of a community for a common good and the good of everyone. The second attribute is the “aim high mindset,” which speaks to the fact that whatever we want to do as a city we will do it to the best of our ability.
The OneKingsport Summit was a key accomplishment, and it was one of the things I ran on. When I campaigned, I felt that we needed to focus on the future direction of Kingsport, especially as we move into our second century. The OneKingsport Summit was one accomplishment that helped us achieve that goal, and it still carries over to what we are doing today as I move into my second term.

TT&C: Are there unique challenges to being in East Tennessee opposed to larger locales?
JC: Many people feel that East Tennessee stops in Knoxville. We in the Tri-Cities region, which includes three cities Kingsport, Johnson City, Bristol and several counties, have to work very hard at marketing and promoting the region. We have a high quality of life here and a low cost of living. We are a very proactive and progressive city.
For the first time ever in Kingsport, we have hired our own marketing team. Now we can get the word out about our quality of life and really reach out to our key customers. We recognize that we have a great product to sell and story to tell, and we realize that we need to be more visible as a region because of where we are within the state. Our region really is a beautiful place and we are trying to capitalize on that.  People in the region still see Kingsport as an industrial town, but for the last 30 to 50 years we have really tried to improve the livability of our town. We’re not just an industrial place with great jobs. We don’t want to be just an 8-to-5 commuter town, we want to be a vibrant 24/7 city where people don’t just work here but live, have fun and raise a family here.

TT&C: What do you emphasize when you’re promoting the city?
JC: We have unique leadership assets in our city that benefit the entire region but are based in Kingsport. What we offer is really phenomenal for a city our size. As I mentioned before, the two important attributes we focus on are our Kingsport spirit and our aim high mindset. When we bring these two attributes together, we always produce great results. Our public school education system is a great example. It’s one of the best public school systems in the region, state and even across the country. Our high school ranks in the top 2 percent of all public high schools in the country. That’s the top 500 of 24,500 public high schools. A second example is our very unique high school to job workforce development program. We have the Kingsport Academic Village, which serves as a feeder into our two main industries — manufacturing and healthcare. It is a Harvard-recognized, award-winning higher education system with four learning centers [that combine the resources of King University, Lincoln Memorial University, Milligan College, Northeast State Community College and East Tennessee State University] all under one roof. Students are able to earn selected two-year, four-year and graduate degrees from participating colleges and universities. We are a safe city. Kingsport is lucky to have nationally-accredited police and fire departments, which is rare. Most cities would love to have just one, but both of our departments have Safe Communities accreditations.  We are also really focused on improving the health and wellness of our citizens, and we take a leadership position across our state when it comes to encouraging health with our Healthy Kingsport program. [Healthy Kingsport aims to solve complex, pressing social and health issues such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer by improving quality of life and focusing on healthy habits such as exercise, tobacco cessation and nutrition.]

TT&C: Kingsport is very scenic and commonly included in what is known as the Mountain Empire, which spans a portion of Southwest Virginia and the mountainous counties in eastern Tennessee. How does this work to your advantage?
JC: We have what I call “quality-of-life access.” For example, we have a mountain in our city — Bays Mountain — that has a 3,500 acre city park, planetarium, nature reserve and observatory all in one. Another example is Marriott’s MeadowView Conference Resort and Convention Center, a fantastic hotel and conference center with a golf course and winery. We have a great new aquatic center — the best in the region —with an outdoor water park that is adjacent to one of the top five YMCAs in the country. Our YMCA is a beautiful place with 18,000 members. We also have top notch football fields and soccer fields, and we have a Greenbelt which is nine miles long. It’s unique as opposed to other cities in the state because it’s paved. The Greenbelt has activity stations, equipment and water filling stations across the nine miles. It’s also beautiful because it’s parallel to the Holston River. The riverfront area is now starting to be cultivated by private investment with restaurants and businesses along the river.
We also have a first-class farmers market, and within the farmer’s market we have a carousel. Very few cities have a carousel, and ours — a five-year labor of love — is hand carved with hand painted animals. It speaks to the history of our city. We are also very big on the arts here. We are a city of 53,000 people, and we have a symphony and a ballet company. Both are phenomenal.

TT&C: What are some of your biggest challenges as a city?
JC: Our biggest challenge as an industrial city is to maintain and grow our population in a manageable and affordable way. We recognize, for example, that people now are very mobile. They don’t have to live where they work, and most people don’t want to leave their industry. We haven’t experienced organic growth in 30 years.
Our No.1 growth tool has been annexation by city ordinance, but that is no longer available. Last but not least, our death rates are exceeding our birth rates. So our challenge is this: How do we market and promote our unique quality of life here so that we can maintain and attract residents, businesses, developers and visitors? To reach this goal requires an ongoing process. Since I’ve lived here, everyone has tried to move the city forward. I am just a continuation of that process. The only thing I have injected is that I believe I’ve brought people together. The last OneKingsport Summit we had [before the one in 2015] was back in 1999. The city has been thriving for the past 15 to 16 years, and we have done a great job and accomplished a lot. I felt we needed to have another great summit grouping, another meeting of the minds. Now we are embarking on amazing plans that continue to differentiate our city and put in our portfolio unique aspects of Kingsport that we can market and promote. Kingsport has to compete, and the only way you can do that is to leverage our unique quality of life.

TT&C: How do you work on economic development issues? What kinds of businesses are you attracting?
JC: Kingsport is known as an industrial city. There are manufacturing businesses next to each other, or within a mile of each other. That’s great because manufacturing and healthcare are the two highest paying businesses in the world. One of the business manufacturing companies is one of the top 300 in the Fortune 500 corporation — Eastman Chemical. They are a global corporation with their headquarters here in Kingsport along with their main manufacturing facility. It is the second largest chemical plant in the United States. So, we have all of this as a nucleus, and because we have so much manufacturing and healthcare, we have a very strong presence of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We constantly recruit in Kingsport from both Sullivan and Hawkins counties. We work very well together in recruiting big and medium-sized businesses. Those four customers that I mentioned before — residents, businesses, developers, and visitors — we are constantly recruiting to them. We are trying to create an environment where our current businesses succeed, grow and expand. We also have a major push with job creation here by leveraging the science, technology engineering and mathematics. The Holston Business Development Center, a small business incubator and accelerator, and our Chamber of Commerce activities are all designed for economic development.

TT&C: Gov. Bill Haslam recently appointed you to the State Workforce Development board. Can you speak about what this appointment means to you?
JC: I am very honored to be selected and to participate on the board. Through their many travels to Northeast Tennessee, I think Gov. Haslam and [government officials from] Nashville have seen what Kingsport has contributed from the workforce development perspective. We have the Kingsport Academic Village, which I mentioned before, and we have great partnerships between our educational, industrial and city organizations and private partners that I think have caught the attention of our governor. Being on the board is a great opportunity to share our story and to help as many counties and cities across our state as I can.

TT&C: How do you feel that local government operates best with state or federal government? How do you see that relationship?
JC: During my first term as mayor I wanted to help the city operate more like a business. For instance, there are a lot of similarities between government and business, although in government it’s not about profitability but breaking even and balancing budgets. Cities in the past have not been very good at marketing themselves. I think having the city operate more like a business really promotes efficiencies and satisfies the needs of our customers. Our emphasis on marketing and promoting Kingsport is, I believe, a business trait. I also emphasize having a great return on investments and focus on the retention and attraction of our four key customers. My philosophy, whether it’s for local, city, state or federal government, has a strong emphasis on operating like a business. And bear in mind that the whole purpose for government is to create a great environment for the private sector to flourish. We have tried to take that to a higher level here in Kingsport. One of the things that’s frustrating for me is that a lot of people take their views about our national political scene and apply those same views to our business case here in the city of Kingsport. They take how the government is working —or not working nationally — and apply that same philosophy to Kingsport. The reality is that we are very different, and they are two different distinct business cases.

TT&C: You were recently elected to a term as an at-large member of TML’s board of directors. How do you see your work with TML?
JC: First of all, I’m honored to be selected to the board. I see this as an opportunity for me to represent the very high-quality of life that we offer our citizens here in Kingsport. I believe the cities across Tennessee are really the economic engines for our state. So, I am honored to participate on a board with other city mayors and city officials to share ideas and to learn about new ideas from other towns and cities. It’s all about improving the state of Tennessee. City officials [who participate in TML] end up learning a lot from each other because each city has its own business case. I was on a panel [at the recent TML conference] in Murfreesboro with other city mayors. We were asked the same questions, but we all gave different answers because each of the cities has different environments. That’s the beauty of our state; we have such diverse and unique cities with all different types of quality of life. But at the same time, we are all part of the same state, and we are all trying to work together to achieve similar goals.

TT&C: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JC: I’d just like to say that I am fortunate to live in such a special place with special people, doing special things. Improving the quality of life for everyone in our city —and in the region — keeps me here in Kingsport. My wife and I both agree that this is the place for us. I never thought I would be mayor. It has been such an amazing experience. Working with so many people across many fronts is a true joy.