When Bill Lee was considering whether to run for governor eight years ago, the Franklin, Tennessee, businessman and part-time cattle farmer decided to tour the state — not to see its most vibrant communities, but to visit with leaders in the lowest-income counties.
Lee, who had done volunteer work in the inner city, said he wanted to visit all of the distressed counties being left out of the economic growth in most of the Volunteer State. The trip helped convince Lee to run for governor and, once elected in 2018, to declare as his first executive order that all state offices develop a plan to aid all of Tennessee's counties ranked among the bottom 10% of all U.S. counties in economic performance.
"I realized that the rural counties are incredibly important to the economic fabric of the entire state," Lee told business leaders gathered Tuesday in Chattanooga for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Governor's Conference.
When Lee took office in 2019, there were 15 counties in Tennessee on the Appalachian Regional Commission's list of "economically distressed counties," including Bledsoe, Grundy and Morgan counties in Southeast Tennessee. Today, eight counties remain on the list, including only Bledsoe in Southeast Tennessee.
Gov. Lee touts economic gains in rural Tennessee
"Maybe we'll have no counties in this list in three or four years," Lee said.
As governor, Lee has capitalized on Tennessee's natural attractions, hospitable culture, low taxes and regulations and sound fiscal health to lure more than 500 business locations and expansions to the state, he said. Collectively, those projects are expected to bring more than $34 billion of new investment and create another 90,000 jobs across the state.
The state has landed 70 new projects so far in 2023, bringing 7,000 new jobs and $3 billion of additional investment, Stuart McWhorter, Tennessee's commissioner of economic and community development, said.
"The pipeline remains busy," with other business prospects looking at locating in Tennessee even with a slower growing economy, he said.
While most of Tennessee's fastest-growing communities have been in metropolitan Nashville and surrounding areas, 30% of the new investments have gone into rural counties, Lee said.
The largest investment ever in Tennessee was announced in 2021 in rural Haywood County when Ford Motor Co. announced plans for a $5.6 billion electric vehicle plant expected to eventually create nearly 6,000 jobs.
For all their recent gains, however, most of Tennessee's rural counties continue to lag in income, educational achievement and employment growth, according to census and state data. But Tennessee overall ranked in the top quartile of all states in income growth last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
McWhorter said his office is seeking to help rural areas address the digital divide by using pandemic relief funds to help extend high-speed internet service into underserved rural communities. Tennessee ranks 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 13% of the state lacking accessibility, according to the Department of Economic and Community Development.
The state is providing $30 million in grants through the Connected Communities Facilities program to electric and telephone co-ops and other internet service providers, McWhorter said. Tennessee also expects nearly $1 billion of state-administered federal funding for the Broadband Deployment and Digital Opportunity program, offering assistance to internet providers and training on internet use to consumers through programs like the Chattanooga-based Tech Goes Home program, the commissioner said.
"Broadband access is critical, and that is why we are doing what we can to help ensure that we have high-speed internet access to all areas of the state," McWhorter said in an interview.
The state budget this year also provides $5.3 million for the Rural Brownfields Investment Act to help provide remediation for the 175 brownfield sites across rural Tennessee.
Lee said he has also focused on training for in-demand jobs through his Governor's Investment in Vocational Education program and Nuclear Power Task Force with a new $50 million investment fund. Such training has helped convince many businesses to locate in Tennessee, Lee said.
Tennessee is attracting new residents and businesses due to its lowest-in-the-nation per capita tax rate and its scenic beauty, friendly people and pro-business regulatory policies, the governor said.
Lee and his top cabinet officials will travel to New York City next week to meet with bond underwriters to try to maintain the state's favorable AAA bond rating. Tennessee is one of 12 states with such a favorable rating on its debt.
Economic growth is key to addressing the inequalities in income and opportunities in cities like Chattanooga, Mayor Tim Kelly said.
"My theory of change is economic," Kelly told the conference Monday. "We have a lot of work here to do to close the gaps in Chattanooga, which are still very real. But if we're going to fix it, it is going to be through economics — creating jobs, providing education and improving opportunities for all people."
Kelly is eager to create the right kind of growth that maintains the quality of life and community appeal of Chattanooga, he said.
"People tell me all the time that Chattanooga is like what Austin, (Texas), was 30 years ago, and my job is to keep it that way," Kelly said.