Suddenly, there’s been more talk of regionalism, communities working together for the common good of the whole. It’s the rising-tides-lifts-all boats notion.
The problem is it’s a large concept that can’t be easily defined — just ask someone who supports regionalism and you get a long-winded answer that prompts some multi-tasking during the conversation.
Regionalism as a goal is not new. Regions around the country and within Tennessee have been trying to figure out the benefit for decades. You could argue that the concept goes back to the colonies working together to rid themselves of Mother England.
But can it work in Middle Tennessee? To do so, government and civic leaders would have to have a dramatic shift that gets beyond lip service and self-interest.
There’s already regionalism in terms of emergency services. Police in one county will work with another to catch a criminal. That’s to everyone’s benefit. Fire departments have standing agreements to help out others if needed. That’s to everyone’s benefit.
But recruiting companies and business to the region is a murky area when it comes to regionalism, as is the effort to stem rampant suburban sprawl. The latter effort is like a hamster on a wheel, a lot of work with the only result being exercise.
The fear is sprawling like Atlanta. Cumberland Region Tomorrow is trying to prevent that by convincing local government folks to preserve green space and think about creating high-density areas with the vast green in between.
One problem there is that changing the thinking can’t outpace the speed of developers to build in suburban counties. If there’s demand, they are going to fill it and scrape farmland. They will build many times with the support of a government trying to expand the tax base to pay for services without raising property taxes to the pleasure of taxpaying voters.
Then there’s public education. Talk of regionalism doesn’t necessarily focus on that area. If people move out of Davidson County to places like Williamson and Wilson County for better schools, that puts pressure on the public infrastructure there. The cities and counties have to figure out how to pay for the influx, that means recruiting commercial development of some kind or raise taxes.
So with respect to economic development, when a relocation prospect comes to own, it’s no wonder that communities act like rabid dogs to land the deal. When they lose the deal, the loser tends to say, “Well, its good for the region.”
That was the refrain out of Nashville government officials when air filtration company Clarcor moved its headquarters from Rockford, Ill., to Cool Springs instead of Nashville.
Ralph Schulz, the Nashville area chamber’s chief executive, spins it this way: “I don’t really see it as competition of one community pulling from another. I look at it as a customer (the company) that’s making a decision that fits their business needs.”
That’s certainly true in a certain way. Louisiana-Pacific wanted to be downtown, so that’s what happened. In spreading the wealth, the company’s research and development went to Franklin ad executives bought houses in Gallatin along Old Hickory Lake. Nissan Americas wanted a suburban, interstate location and that’s what it got. Nissan’s advertising firm TBWA/Chiat/Day opened an office in Nashville.
Incentives, however, certainly help a company in its business need of lower cost and better profit margin. Healthways decide to go to Cool Springs for the incentives when it couldn’t get a conversation started with former Mayor Bill Purcell.
There’s an argument that Healthways moving there still has regional benefit because workers still live and spend in Davidson County. But, Healthways constructed a new building that it apparently has outgrown already and is said to be looking for additional space in the area.
The regionalism seems more by default. It’s a little like, “I get mine first before you get yours.” Clearly, economic developers will take issue with that.
Yet, look at Dell.
Then-Mayor Phil Bredesen pulled out the stops to snatch Dell from Rutherford County with a sweet deal. Then by default, it became more regional, just with Nashville in the lead. Dell set up initially in Wilson County while the Nashville facility was being built and stayed there. A bevy of suppliers landed all over the place.
Everyone involved with thinking about regionalism have their work cut out for them. There are a lot of rice bowls that have to be broken for it to work.
Contact Lawson at firstname.lastname@example.org