Rural TN community makes bid to improve lives

8/16/2017

Hancock County pins its hopes on the revitalization prospects of a call center bringing dozens of jobs to the area in conjunction with a new focus on education and health.

Hancock County, nestled in the mountains of East Tennessee on the Kentucky border, is the test case in an ambitious mission by state leaders to lift its counties off a federally designated list of distressed counties by 2025. Hancock County, with a population of just more than 6,500, ranks near the bottom of Tennessee’s counties for employment, health and literacy. The per capita income from 2011 to 2015 was $15,169, according to census data.

It’s lost hundreds of jobs over the years, and local officials worried about how to get ahead of growing rates of depression, alcoholism and opioid abuse, said Amy New of the rural team at the Tennessee Department of Economic and Development Commission (ECD), recalling early meetings with county officials.

Local officials wanted a more vibrant workforce, but the roads aren’t the kind that tractor-trailers want to drive, said Hancock County Mayor Thomas Harrison. And a lot of the county’s residents drive 30-45 minutes, one way, to get to work out of the county. So several state agencies along with regional and local departments came up with a plan — the first phase of a statewide initiative dubbed Project 95 — to tackle education, employment and health.

If successful Project 95 will bring 150-200 call center jobs to Hancock County as soon as next fall, and start to make inroads in boosting literacy and reversing troubling health trends. Paula Masters, co-director of East Tennessee State University’s Center for Rural and Appalachian Health, was born and raised in Hancock County and got introduced to the project by the dean of the College of Public Health. She studies distressed populations in Appalachia, and a lot of places are exploring how to tackle the same issues as Hancock County. Project 95 is innovative because it links health and education to wealth. “This is the best recipe for Hancock County,” said Masters. “I think that that is so visionary and is a model that definitely needs to be replicated.”

“They are just ready to get back to work. They are ready to start taking their own lives back into their hands. (Hancock County) is part of my roots and my wings.”

Questions remain: Will a company want to be part of a revitalization movement?

The ECD is putting out a call for companies interested in opening a call center in Hancock County in a brand new 17,750square-foot building that is being designed and constructed for the project. A federal grant is financing the $2 million building.

Harrison estimates that 300 manufacturing jobs left the county over the years and recalled that early in his tenure as county mayor seven years ago the chief of a manufacturing facility handed him the keys to the building as the company left town.

Call centers are self-contained and don’t require the constant in-and out of materials and products. Shipping goods from Sneedville, the county seat, is tough since there is no railway and “our mountain ranges” don’t invite ground shipping, said Harrison. “We have good roads but not roads that tractor trailers like to travel,” Harrison said. Companies looking to open a call center have to submit their interest by a deadline in September, and the ECD expects to pick a tenant for the building a couple of months later.

There’s a social good component to this project, and the state’s not looking for a company that looks at this as free space for a while, and then they move, said Commissioner Bob Wolfe, who inherited Project 95 from former commissioner-turned-gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd. The call center is key to revitalizing a struggling county. Benefits will be a big part of the selection process, and the ECD isn’t looking for a company searching for inexpensive labor, said Wolfe.

County officials are trying to put their community on a track toward a better life in the face of a variety of challenges. There are initiatives around boosting tourism, parks and recreation initiatives, as well as others, said Harrison. “We are so proud of what they are trying to do,” said Wolfe. “There haven’t been many wins or successes or jobs coming into this county.”

Big questions remain: Are companies going to be interested, and what are they going to propose?

Harrison said a website about Project 95 run by the ECD has gotten 35hits. “(There’s) no visibility into who is going to show up — are we going to receive five, 10, one response?” said Wolfe. “We truly have no idea. At the end of the day, we are going to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars.”

Literacy, feeling good and work all build toward personal and community prosperity

Prosperity is rooted in more than just jobs. There’s a correlation between education, health and wealth — and Project 95 is built to try to influence the social determinants that impact long term prosperity for families and communities.

Places with a high level of poverty have poorer health no matter how data is analyzed, said Masters.

“In order to stimulate economic development, you have to be very intentional and think about the cross section of education and health in that,” Masters said. “You can’t raise one without raising theother.” Improving the health and education of Tennesseans in a bid to bolster the future economy that will be reshaped by increasingly tech-heavy positions has been a priority from Gov. Bill Haslam and his commissioners.

In 2015 Hancock County ranked 93rd with third grade reading levels, according to the ECD.

Project 95 will work to boost literacy in schools, which could be reflected in statistics before results from wellness programs, such as smoking cessation or assessing health measures such as obesity or hypertension. Project 95 is a collaboration of agencies: the ECD plus education, health, labor and workforce, mental health and tourism. “We knew the solution needed to be holistic,” said Amanda Martin, special projects coordinator at the ECD. “They don’t see us as different departments. They just see us as the state.” The ECD wants to get all of the state’s counties off the distressed list by2025. Bledsoe, Campbell, Clay, Cocke, Fentress, Grundy, Hancock, Jackson, Morgan, Scott and Van Buren are designated economically distressed by the Appalachian Regional Commission for fiscal year 2018. That means they rank in the lowest 10 percent in the country. By state standards, 19 are distressed and 33 are at-risk. “Where better to start than at the bottom?” said New. “It’s probably going to take (Hancock) a little bit of time to get up there.” It’s not the community’s fault that jobs left, but it’s been left to stagnate in the years since, said Harrison. The call center, which he proposed to the state, has taken time, but it’s an effort to improve the lives of a quiet and beautiful piece of the state, he said. “If we can make all that happen and fulfill the 150 jobs need, it will bring sales tax dollars, create more jobs elsewhere — the quality of life will be a little bit better,” said Harrison. “You can understand that excitement is great.”

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Holly Fletcher

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org

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