New governor looks to spur country-style commerce

In one of his first official acts after taking the oath of office as Tennessee’s newest chief executive, Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order mandating that state agencies do a better job serving country folks.

The order directs state agencies to take steps toward improving rural economic opportunities, especially in areas deemed “economically distressed.”

“This administration recognizes that Tennessee’s economic growth and prosperity has reached historic levels,” reads Lee’s order, issued Jan. 29. “Despite such growth and prosperity, Tennessee’s rural citizens face challenges unique to their geography that often require a unique response.”

“Educational attainment and labor workforce participation are continuing to lag within our rural communities,” the order states.

Of Tennessee’s 95 counties, 80 are deemed rural by the state. Those around the Upper Cumberland designated “economically distressed” include Jackson, van Buren, Clay and Fentress, as well as Bledsoe, Grundy and nine others in the state.

Lee’s order notes that Tennessee has among states with the highest percentage of distressed counties in the country. The governor observed during a press conference soon after taking office that much of what the state does in the way of corporate recruitment and business project development “automatically happens in urban areas because the vast majority of economic development is occurring in our urban areas.”

“My administration will place a high emphasis on the development and success of our rural areas,” Lee said. “Our first executive order sends a clear message that rural areas will be prioritized across all departments as we work to improve coordination in our efforts.”

Lee’s pledge to focus on rural issues isn’t without precedent. One of the executive order’s mandates is that all 22 state department formally sum up progress they’ve made as a result of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Rural Task Force initiatives.

Their assessments, due by the end of May, must include “a comprehensive description of the department’s initiatives adopted or funded in the last four years to specifically address challenges unique to rural communities.”

Lee’s executive order declares that by June 30 all agencies must provide “recommendations for improving and making more efficient the department’s service of rural Tennesseans.”

Enticing Hinterland Tourism

Lee’s tourism development commissioner, Mark Ezell, says he’s “bullish” on tourism in Tennessee. Tourism’s scope and potential as a driver of economic activity has “community-changing ability” for small towns and rural populations, he said.

Ezell replaces Kevin Triplett, who served in the role under Haslam. He’s no stranger to rural commerce, having worked as a brand development executive with Purity Dairies prior to taking over as the state’s top promoter of Tennessee travel, leisure, entertainment and recreation.

Ezell calls himself “a brand builder.” He says Tennessee is already a “remarkable product.” The goal of his agency now is to get people to visit Tennessee, spend money, then “do that over and over and over again.”

“What is great about tourism is that the size is big and the growth is massive.” Ezell said. “Tourism drives economic impact. Over $20 billion is the new number that we will achieve with growth of over seven percent — beating the national average.”

Tourism bolsters local quality of life throughout the state and has great capacity to do more, he said. “Tourism pays hundreds of millions of dollars for the critical services that help all Tennesseans have a good job, a good school and a safe neighborhood,” he said.

During budget hearings before Gov. Lee in January, Ezell expressed a desire to raise the visibility of seemingly out-of-the-way Tennessee towns and counties endowed with visitor attractions. One of his priorities will be to encourage more travel off the beaten path in order to help share the wealth of tourist dollars flowing into Tennessee.

“Because so many of these counties are rich in scenic beauty or natural resources or adventure tourism opportunities or agritourism, this is a key development piece for us,” he said.

Ezell said his office will try to help rural communities take better advantage of the Adventure Tourism Act “that promotes rafting and kayaking and biking and rock climbing.” The Department of Tourist Development can also lend towns and counties technical and financial assistance in planning and promoting recreation-oriented infrastructure — which is often one of the top ways business and community leaders in economically underperforming regions say the state can help them, he said.

Thirteen of the 15 distressed counties have indicated to the new administration that expanding tourism is their No. 1 priority, said Ezell. For example, Jackson County’s top long term goal is to “leverage the Roaring River and other scenic rivers in the county,” said Ezell.

‘People Relocate Where They Recreate’

Appreciating the benefits of expanding recreation-based tourism is a perspective that makes a lot of sense to Marvin Bullock, president of the Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce. He says he often encounters transplanted Upper Cumberland entrepreneurs who tell him “our outdoors are why they moved to our area.”

“I am proud that Tennessee recognizes the value of tourism,” he said. “Rural communities with recreational opportunities benefit beyond the dollars spent on tourism and retirees. People relocate where they recreate, and that includes business owners.”

“In the case of Sparta and White County, tourism has substantially contributed to industrial growth and attracting workforce as well,” added Bullock, who points to Jackson Kayak as the best local example of what leveraging nearby recreation potential can achieve in the realm of business and industry development.

Not only is world-champion kayaker Eric Jackson’s company White County’s largest employer, but it regularly helps attract major kayaking events that splash visitors’ dollars around the area.

Just this spring alone, the Upper Cumberland is playing host to two major paddle-sport competitions — the U.S. Freestyle National Team Trials at Rock Island March 16-17, and the inaugural Pan-American Kayak Bass Championship from May 28-31 in Cookeville. The latter is billed as a first-of-its-kind in the world, and will bring more than 100 of the most elite kayak bass anglers from around the globe to Center Hill Lake.

Strengthening Farming, Forestry

Tourism may be a little more flashy and seemingly open-ended in terms of capacity for growth, but farming, ranching and timber-harvesting are still backbone industries in much of rural Tennessee.

That’s especially true around the Upper Cumberland — and in particular the “Nursery Capital of the World,” Warren County.

“Warren County boasts more than 160,000 acres of farmland, with more than 300 nurseries operating in McMinnville and the surrounding vicinity,” according to an economic assessment published last year by the Upper Cumberland Development District. “In 2012, nursery sales totaled $17,691,000, making Warren County the top nursery stock crop producer in the entire country.”

Nevertheless, like in rural areas across the state, farming in general has been diminishing in profitability.

“Agriculture is undoubtedly important in Warren County, however with the industry on a steady decline for the last fifty years, farmers have been struggling to sustain locally owned agribusinesses,” the UCDD report states.

Lee’s new agriculture commissioner, Charlie Hatcher, said his department will be looking to “facilitate or create an environment that is better for farmers or ag businesses” across the state, especially in counties and communities where farming has played a significant role in the local economy

“We are at a time when we know that farm income is down 50 percent,” Hatcher said during Lee’s state budget hearings. He added, “We know that government is not the answer.” Even so, he said “whatever money we have available for cost-shares and grants we would like to use” to make it easier to make a living on the farm.

Gov. Lee is hinting that he might like to see farmers in distressed counties receive “premium scoring” on applications for agriculture enhancement funds and farm-enterprise grant requests with the department.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture is in the process of forming an internal task force to counsel the agency on rural economic development, said Hatcher. The task force will advise on “all commodity groups throughout the state,” he said.

In addition, the agency will host an online “suggestion box for ag ideas” to promote outreach and communication with farmers, rural communities and ag-focused businesses and entrepreneurs, said Hatcher.