Union County is region’s ‘next big thing’

Sandra Clark

Roads, jobs, retail top county goals

If you’re thinking about building or expanding a business, look north to Union County. State funding is available to help stimulate growth in 23 so-called distressed counties. Union County is the closest to Knoxville.

It made the list with unemployment of 11.4 percent, per capita income of $18,000 and a poverty rate of 22 percent, according to the state’s most recent reports. Many residents drive to Knox County to shop and work.

Beth Phillips said preliminary research showed an annual $194 million retail gap – demand exceeding supply – across all sectors. Food City filled a need, but still that’s a lot of Union County dollars being spent someplace else.

Major private-sector employers are Clayton Homes, Food City and O-N Minerals, each with 100-plus, and Cooper Container Corporation with 80. The local sales tax rose 1.5 percent 2015 over 2014.

Gov. Bill Haslam and Randy Boyd, commissioner of Economic and Community Development, have visited the county. The state has contracted with the UT Center for Industrial Services, where Phillips is manager, to facilitate meetings and develop strategies to jump-start local economies of the distressed counties.

Phillips joined with the Union County Chamber of Commerce last week for the third public meeting to get specific suggestions.

There were some good ones:

Infrastructure: Roads, said David Cox, superintendent of highways. “You can’t grow jobs without good roads.” Luttrell Mayor Johnny Merritt advocated for a four-lane Hwy. 61 from Luttrell to Rutledge Pike and the interstate. County Commissioner Wayne Roach wants KUB to extend a gas line to Luttrell, which has railroad access and land available in an industrial park.

Education: Susan Oaks, supervisor for Union County Public Schools, suggested a community college site in the county – perhaps at a warehouse owned by J.T. Russell which is close enough to the high school for students to walk to classes. The building was previously used by a T-shirt manufacturer who “shipped the jobs to Mexico,” Russell said. Now he uses the building for boat storage and a vendors’ mall.

Charlie Hamilton, a high school student and former Shopper News intern, said Union County High School needs more dual credit (accelerated so kids get college credit) and CTE (career technical education) classes.

During a break, Charlie said he’s taking all the special classes he can, but he knows there could be more. He suggested computer programming, website development and auto mechanics/body work.

Health care: Kathy Chesney, director of admissions for Willow Ridge Center, advocated for a continuum of care, including a dialysis and urgent care clinic along with assisted living and residential hospice. She said real estate values, especially near Norris Lake, would attract relocating residents if they had easier access to health care.

Tourism: Participants said the county sponsors many events, but Shannon Brooks, branch manager for FSG Bank, said these must be promoted outside the county.

Rick Riddle of Seven Springs farm said it’s tough to promote attractions that are staffed by volunteers and therefore open intermittently, such as the museum.

Someone suggested more promotion for agri-tourism, and Jack Rhyne, Maynardville city manager, said the county needs an events center. That was also the top suggestion of Chamber president Leslie Corum.

Advertise outside the county for events, said several participants. One suggested combining several music festivals and buying regional promotion.

Jobs: Doug Lawyer from the Knoxville Chamber said, “Prepare concept plans for sites within five minutes of 55 miles per hour. TVA can do that.”

Gary England said the county needs a new car dealership. That’s been lacking since the closure of Booker Chevrolet.

Riddle said the county should immediately create an office of economic development under the mayor and staff it with grant writers.

There are no bad ideas, Phillips said. We’re all waiting to see how her report consolidates the ideas of last week’s meeting.

Gossip and lies

Lee Trammel represented Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones at last week’s annual banquet for the Halls Business and Professional Association.

Sherry Witt represented herself, even though she’s term-limited as register of deeds. Word on the street is that Witt may go for another county office – perhaps county clerk. Lord knows, she could make vast improvements there.

Law Director Bud Armstrong was listed as a table sponsor, but he was not there.

Radio guy Phil Williams spoke. He said he knew five families whose homes were destroyed by fire. It was hard to be funny, but Williams did manage one good crack. He said nobody can get Donald Trump to stop tweeting, but we should just be grateful it’s not Anthony Wiener.

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