published Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Dalton Roberts: Make job growth a regional effort

by Dalton Roberts

In the last few columns, I have been urging more regional cooperation in building infrastructure, like the bridges at highways 30 and 60. The same benefits would flow to us in new jobs if we truly practiced regional job development.

Maybe I am a fanatic, but when you know you have a quality idea, you dare not back down an inch. And, my friends, I know I am reasoning soundly on this one.

In the seven years I was chairman of the Southeast Tennessee Development District, I field-tested it.

I was totally committed to downtown development during my tenure in office -- from the time the Tennessee Aquarium was unpopular and called "Jack's fish tank" to the opening of the Tennessee Riverpark. But I fear some are so focused on downtown development that they do not grasp the powerful possibilities of a regional jobs program. It's not either/or but both/and.

John Germ is an exception. When we were on the River City board, he was for bringing county mayors from surrounding counties on the board to start tapping into regional perspectives. For a while, we did it, but it was dropped.

There are three good reasons for forging a regional program. The main one, as I pointed out in an earlier column, is that surrounding counties have nearly all of the land we need to locate companies desiring to bring jobs here. We simply do not have another windfall situation like the land where we put VW and Amazon.

The economic facts of life will force Chattanooga to see our surrounding county communities as "us" rather than "them." A good example was when officials with Variform (now Ply Gem) took me to dinner and said they did not want to locate in Chattanooga but were impressed by Marion County. Howell Moss was county mayor in Marion, so we met with them, and they have provided 180 to 200 jobs ever since.

For many long years, residents of our neighbor counties have come here to work. Due to their ownership of most of the available land for new companies, you will see more Chattanoogans driving to work at companies in other counties

Another reason to work regionally is that Chattanooga can use the sewage treatment business of the smaller counties. Few things are more expensive to build than sewage treatment plants. If memory serves me correctly, the last expansion of our facility was a $90 million investment.

The biggest surprise to me when I accepted chairmanship of the SETDD was the quality of leadership and the commitment to the people of those who served with me. It was a genuine joy to work with them. Our board meetings were lively with swarms of good ideas.

When a dozen people elected to do the same job get together, you can expect ideas to proliferate that way.

Nothing is more important to good government than good ideas. I once told someone, "My only addiction is to ideas." I am convinced that the way an elected person gathers, processes and prioritizes ideas determines the quality of their leadership and their success.

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