Good economic news heard at JECDB meeting

Friday, June 13, 2014

By Karen Hall


For their June meeting, the Joint Economic and Community Development Board gathered for breakfast at Petersburg Town Hall Tuesday.

The first speaker was Clay Banks, southern Middle Tennessee regional director of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

"Last year southern Middle Tennessee had more jobs than any other region," Banks said. "Jobs are the way we measure our success."

His department has just 110 people in it, statewide, so as Banks put it, "we have to leverage our partners," in other words, get help from local bodies, like the JECDB.

"I applaud you for being a go-to resource for us," Banks said. "Mike (Wiles) and Greg (Lowe) do a great job. If every community had a Greg and Mike, we wouldn't have a job!"

Industries who chose Marshall County recently include Meiwa and Imperial Foods, while existing industries Calsonic and Teledyne are expanding.

"A lot of hot projects have selected Marshall County," Banks said.

The state ECD department does a lot of training grants and infrastructure grants, and is adding economic development grants to cover the costs of expansion. It also makes sure state tax credits are being applied properly, and now has offices in the European Union, China, Japan, Germany, Canada and Mexico to help Tennessee companies with exports.

"We're looking for companies that need assistance (with exports)," Banks said. "We're there to help."

Tennessee is the No. 1 state for automotive, but there are also recruitment specialists focused on attracting industries from the aerospace/defense, chemical, agricultural, medical, and advanced manufacturing industries.

Banks noted that companies are looking at the states' balance sheets, seeking states that are financially stable, like Tennessee, which has the least per capita debt in the country.

The other guest speaker was Graham Thomas from tnAchieves, a partnering organization to Tennessee Promise.

tnAchieves started in 2008 in Knox County, when people saw that one-third of high school graduates were not getting any post-secondary education.

Thomas said the group realized if the financial barrier was eliminated, they could get those students to college, so they worked to design a program that would not only close the financial gap, but also help students stay in college, through mentoring. tnAchieves has now spread to 25 additional counties.

"It's working!" exclaimed Thomas, with the program reaching the at-risk students from low income families which do not have a tradition of college enrollment.

Now Gov. Haslam has picked up the idea and taken it statewide, with his Tennessee Promise. The program offers "last-dollar" scholarships to ensure free two-year degrees or certificates from the state's 13 community colleges and 27 technical schools. Participants must meet with volunteer mentors, take at least 12 credit hours each semester, maintain a 2.0 GPA or higher, and put in eight hours of community service per year.

Thomas said in tnAchieves' experience, the volunteer mentors are the key. They help students -- who may be the first in their family to attend college -- to navigate the complexities of signing up for classes, getting to the right place on campus, and so on.

He asked the JECDB to form a local advisory council to help find volunteer mentors in Marshall County.

"They are so critical for our students' success," Thomas said.

"He's happy to come down here," said County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett. "They pay for the (mandatory) background checks -- the least we can do is step up to help."

Thomas oversees the volunteer program across the state, and Jennifer Dreis has just been hired for the Columbia State and Motlow College area, which, of course, includes Marshall County.