The first is that Kingsport’s downtown area is the heart of the city, and anything the city does to advance itself must begin there.
That is not the case with every community, but experts told summit attendees that for Kingsport, it all begins with downtown. “Revitalize downtown first. That has to be what helps set the market,” said Ellen Dunham-Jones, master of urban design at Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture. Dunham-Jones detailed how communities can revitalize downtowns and urban centers.
John Vachon, CEO and cofounder of Urban Synergy, which specializes in downtown redevelopment, echoed that approach, saying Kingsport should focus on its downtown section via a “catalyst” project that other development can build upon. What that might be remains to be seen.
But it also became clear at the summit that to become the premier city in Northeast Tennessee, which is the intent of this process in developing a three- to five-year road map, Kingsport must recognize that it’s in a competitive situation with Bristol and Johnson City.
In short, that means the gloves must come off. Some advocate cooperation in all things among the three cities, but going forward, that should be limited to regional goals such as health care or major industrial developments.
Otherwise, Kingsport needs an attitude adjustment. It must be ready and willing to fight for every retail development, every housing project, and most especially, for people.
And it’s well past time it did so.
It wasn’t that many years ago that Kingsport was the region’s economic leader, but Johnson City fought hard to overtake Kingsport and succeeded. In retail development, Kingsport was easily on par with Johnson City, but Bristol mounted a charge and got a leg up with the huge Pinnacle project and Cabela’s, as Kingsport’s major development site at Tri-Cities Crossings remains stagnant.
Thus, Mayor Clark’s approach to build a new process forward is timely, and critically necessary. And the city must unite behind it. “It’s our city, and it’s up to all of us to make it the best place possible,” Mayor Clark said at the conclusion of the summit. “It’s an effort to get our house in order. Our challenge is to be a vibrant, 24/7 city or an 8 to 5 commuter city. I want the first,” Clark said.
In the next five years, Sullivan County is projected to grow less than 1 percent. For Kingsport to grow, it must court residents of neighboring counties such as Washington, which is projected to grow by 6.7 percent during the next five years.
Coupled with that is the 13.6 percent of millennials who are unemployed or underemployed in Kingsport.
“No wonder they don’t stay. They can’t find a job,” said Lynn Tully, development services director for the city. “We’re losing our next generation, and we’re in a real battle for our health. We need more job opportunities. We have to have attractive housing and places to play and things to do.”
During the past 15 years, annexation has allowed Kingsport to grow by 15.5 percent, but with changes in state law, Kingsport has to provide reasons for people to want to live here. That’s what the summit aims to do.
The challenges are great. But building for the city’s future is off to a very successful start through a well-designed summit that developed specific recommendations in seven core areas. Focus groups will now mold ideas into recommendations to be presented to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen next spring, just in time to develop a plan of action as the city marches into its centennial in 2017.