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Developing Three-Star Communities

by Fred D. Baldwin

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Assistant county executive Jay Willoughby

Jay Willoughby, the assistant county executive for Campbell County, Tennessee, reads aloud from a decade-old grant proposal whose summation might well describe any economically distressed county: high unemployment, low educational attainment, poverty. He sounds like someone who's looking over an outdated photo in an old scrapbook. The picture is still recognizable, he acknowledges, but it's not how Campbell County sees itself now.

Today Campbell County's leadership emphasizes positive evidence of progress: expanded water lines and other infrastructure improvements, a number of growing businesses, prospects for further development, and a new career center scheduled to open shortly. But the main change, Willoughby says, is that residents have an optimistic vision of what the county can become and a clearer perspective on what it will take to get it there.

"We've had some success," Willoughby says, "in bringing in fresh companies, but most of our growth has been internal. You're seeing people getting together quietly over a cup of coffee and talking about issues. We're building a coalition of people who've stopped being passive."

A major factor in this new perspective has been a statewide program called the Governor's Three-Star Program for Community Economic Preparedness, which for almost 20 years has been challenging communities to take a hard look at themselves and decide what they need in order to prosper. Tennessee now has 64 Three-Star communities, 30 of them in Appalachian Tennessee. Not quite half of these Three-Star designees are counties; the remainder are either cities or city-county partnerships.

The Three-Star program, which is administered by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD), was conceived as a way to help Tennessee communities, primarily those in rural areas, sell themselves as desirable locations for industry. It grew out of a recognition that many small communities did not know how to put their best foot forward to firms considering new plant sites, or even what information they might need to provide those firms. Attracting new resources is still part of the Three-Star mission, but the program has evolved to emphasize community development as a worthwhile goal in its own right. Of course, if a community's citizens believe that their area is a great place to live, they've moved a giant step along the road to increasing their appeal to new business.

That's been true for Campbell County, which has been a Three-Star community since 1990. On the walls of its chamber of commerce are plaques confirming the designation for that year and for every year since. Three-Star designations must be renewed every year, and the criteria for approval are increasingly demanding.

These criteria fall into four categories: organizational development (creating the organizational base for planning and action); community development (various action programs); education/workforce development; and economic development. Each of these categories contains two lists, "basic requirements" and "suggested additional activities."

For example, maintaining a broad-based economic development organization with a long-range strategic plan is a basic organizational development requirement. A suggested activity in that category is securing a chamber of commerce accreditation. Similarly, a community beautification program and a solid-waste disposal plan are basic community development requirements. Suggested activities in that category include an Adopt-a-Highway program, a local Main Street program, and a health care assessment. Periodically the state raises the bar. For example, a youth leadership program, once a suggested activity, is now a requirement.

Measuring Progress

"When you look at these requirements," says Betty Snodderly, the Campbell County Chamber of Commerce administrator, "it forces you to go out and see firsthand that these things are being done. When you look at your notebook when it's all finished, you're proud of what's being done."

"It gives you a measuring rod to go by," Willoughby adds.

One measure of progress is that projects increasingly involve county-wide participation. Campbell County, which borders Kentucky, is cut almost in half by a segment of the Cumberland Mountain range, which runs diagonally from northeast to southwest. The economy of the northern half was once built around coal. Now about three-quarters of the population lives on the southern side, a bit over an hour's drive from Knoxville. In the past, geographical barriers often impeded cooperation toward common goals.

Leadership programs begun under the Three-Star stimulus are helping change that. For each of the past four years, an adult leadership program has attracted about a dozen participants, selected to represent the broadest possible cross-section of potential talent around the county. They visit government offices, hospitals, and other facilities, learning about the county, its problems, and its resources. Each class then undertakes a project. Examples include fundraisers (and follow-up work) for a children's advocacy center and for courthouse renovations.

"We're probably going to see more results from that program than anything else the chamber has done," Snodderly says. "Some of these people will continue to step forward and say, 'I see this need.' "

Campbell County's leaders are even prouder of their youth development programs. The county was the first in Tennessee to develop a community initiative under the national America's Promise program, whose "five promises" include providing children and youth with adult support, safe extracurricular activities, and opportunities for community service. (Founded in 1997, America's Promise's founding chair was General Colin L. Powell, current U.S. secretary of state.)

Stephanie Grimm, executive director of Campbell County's Promise—The Alliance for Youth, mentions nine separate youth program activities in the county. They include a mentoring program with more than 150 adult volunteer mentors, an intern program with county government, and various after-school education efforts.

"A lot of the kids are latchkey kids," Grimm says. "These are kids who take the last bus out from school because their parents are at work, and there's no one home. So we get a chance to do something constructive with them."

Some Three-Star efforts still fall into familiar economic development categories. Among the development requirements are the presence of "controlled, developed sites for business and industry," effectively defining an industrial park. Helping further efforts in this area, the Appalachian Regional Commission assisted with the reclamation of a former strip mine to create the Ershell Collins Industrial Park, now owned by the city of Caryville. This development helped convince the Camel Manufacturing Company, a manufacturer of tents for the military, to locate there. Camel currently employs about 250 workers, and based on demand for its innovative products, the management expects Camel to continue growing.

"A large percentage of what we ship goes overseas," says Regina Murray, Camel's president. "Almost all of the tent is heat-welded, not sewn, so you won't have leaks—we really were the ones who brought this process to the military. And we have a good workforce here to keep production high."

Matix Corporation, a Japanese-owned automobile parts manufacturer, has also located in the industrial park. The firm plans to begin production early in 2002 and expects to employ up to 200 workers within the next three years.

Advanced Training Capability

In attracting and holding firms, Campbell County can offer advanced training facilities. The Tennessee Technology Center at Jacksboro, located between the towns of Caryville and Jacksboro, has 300 students enrolled in a core curriculum and trains over 800 students annually in job-specific skills requested by over 50 different employers. "If an industry needs to train welders at 3:00 a.m.," says Coy Gibson, director of the center, "we will attempt to accommodate those needs."

Now on the drawing board are two new housing and recreational developments. One, Rarity Mountain Resort, is near Jellico, a small town located on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line. The project will combine a residential retirement community expected to include 1,000 new homes with first-class resort facilities. Its proximity to U.S. interstate 75, which connects Knoxville with Lexington, Kentucky, is expected to make it (along with other Campbell County recreational facilities) a major tourist draw. The developers, recognizing that the success of their own project is linked to the quality of life in nearby areas, are working with Jellico officials on downtown revitalization projects. The second development, Olde Colony Resort, is also located near interstate 75 and adjoins the Ershell Collins Industrial Park. Initial plans include 600 new home sites and an 18-hole championship golf facility.

"It may be a stretch," says Tammy White Miller, an ECD business development consultant based in Knoxville, "to say that any company locates in a specific area exclusively because of Three-Star. In the case of Camel, for example, the location was a result of years of economic preparedness efforts in Campbell County-infrastructure investment, the county's economic development program, and opportunities in the community. The groundwork [for these efforts] was laid by the Three-Star program."

The 30 Appalachian communities now participating in Three-Star came on board at varying times in the program's history. Three of them (Erwin-Unicoi County, Smith County, and Jefferson County) are among the program's oldest designees (almost 20 years each). The newest Appalachian designee (Marion County) qualified in 2001.

Miller says that many of these communities have programs that serve as models. For example, in Scott County, a local board is working on multiple needs of children, especially in health. Projects include a dental clinic, day-care efforts, and a drug awareness program. And Jefferson County has an especially ambitious youth leadership program. It's evolved into a semester-long high school course, now in its second year, which meets every school day. Students qualify only after completing an application resembling that for a college. Activities include visits to the state capitol and county legislators to learn about state and local government, team-building exercises, and interaction with local firms to learn about careers and the county's business community.

"Year after year," sums up James P. Earle, ECD's assistant commissioner for community development, "it becomes more important to ensure that our Tennessee communities have the strong leadership, educational opportunities, roads, and infrastructure that will prepare them for economic and community growth. Tennessee's Three-Star communities display an outstanding level of commitment and readiness to attract economic development and improve their quality of life."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.