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Pivotal point – Kingsport summit aims to shape future of city

Matthew Lane • Oct 24, 2015 at 5:00 PM

KINGSPORT — Mayor John Clark is passionate about the upcoming One Kingsport summit. He first pitched the idea of the city holding a strategic planning session similar to the 1999 economic summit during his campaign for mayor.

The pledge was for the city to hold a summit within the first 100 days of his taking office. Clark envisioned such an event setting a road map for the next 10 years for the city. After months of discussion and planning by city administration and a few community leaders, the mayor’s summit is finally upon us. The event will take place Thursday and Friday.

Now, it’s make or break time for the Model City.

“At this time in our history, as we approach our 100-year anniversary, I believe Kingsport has an opportunity to continue progressing to achieve its vision of being a premier city to live, work, raise a family and for businesses to do well,” Clark said in a recent interview with the Times-News. “At the same time, I think Kingsport has the potential to transition into an 8-5 commuter town where more of the people work here but do not live here.”

Kingsport has a population of more than 50,000, a goal achieved in recent years through aggressive annexation in the Rock Springs and Colonial Heights communities. City officials have said more than 90 percent of the city’s growth over the past decade has been through annexation, but with the state banning annexation by ordinance last year, Kingsport needs a new strategy for increasing its population.

Most cities have two challenges when convincing people to move within their borders, Clark explained. One is for there to be jobs and the other is having a place to live.

However, of the people relocating to our region from out of state, Kingsport is only getting less than one in three to move within the city limits.

And on any given day of the week, Kingsport’s population swells from 50,000 to more than 70,000, with many of those people driving into the city to work. People from Hawkins County, Johnson City and Southwest Virginia have jobs inside the city, but have chosen to live outside the corporate limits.

Clark believes those people are a prime market for Kingsport to target, with the plan being to convince them to live within the city limits.

“Kingsport has been known for years as the lowest cost of living area within the region, but we’ve never been able to get the volume. People are going to higher cost of living areas,” Clark said. “That tells me they’re willing to pay for a perceived higher quality of life.”

Kingsport is going to have to make a choice — either figure out a way to make the city more attractive or continue with leakage and retention problems. Eventually, this could lead to a reduction in population and a declining tax base, Clark said.

That’s simply unacceptable for Kingsport’s new mayor.

“It is hard to figure out,” Clark said. “It’s complex and it is a challenge.”

Here’s where the summit comes into play. The two-day brainstorming and planning event is expected to draw around 130 community and business leaders and members of the public, some of whom were around for the 1999 economic summit that birthed a plan the city has essentially been working from over the past 15 years.

Though that plan did not have a firm timetable on when projects would come online, nor did it have assigned stewards to shepherd the various ideas to fruition, the plan did give Kingsport the Academic Village, new baseball and soccer fields and a skate park in downtown.

“For Kingsport to be successful, the city needs to be a destination city on several fronts,” Clark said. Ideally, a destination for each of the seven focus areas to be discussed at next week’s summit. The focus areas include arts and entertainment, destination city investments, downtown revitalization, health and wellness, higher education innovation and housing.

Each of these focus areas will have a steward, a city staff member and an alderman assigned to it to shepherd the ideas that come out of the summit into actionable items that could come before the Board of Mayor and Aldermen within the next 100 days.

Though the original idea was for the summit to craft a long-range plan for the city for the next 10 to 15 years, the time frame has changed rather dramatically. Clark wants to see recommendations come to pass within the next three to five years.

“I think people have a hard time grasping how they’re going to participate and provide input to something that is so far out of reach for them,” Clark said. “Instead of having a long-term vision and trying to knock off a few things toward that vision, I’d rather focus on some short-term hits that I know we need help in, that will help determine our future in 10 to 15 years.

“We have short-term needs and I really want to get as many people involved and interested and participating in helping figure out what those solutions are.”

Clark hails from the private sector and has spend more than 30 years in the medical equipment business. His first entry into the public eye came three years ago when then-Mayor Dennis Phillips selected him to serve out the remaining term of Alderman Ben Mallicote, who left the BMA to run for state office.

A year later, Clark won election to retain his appointed seat, then earlier this year defeated four other candidates to secure the mayor’s position for the next two years.

Not wasting any time in his new position, Clark assembled a small group of local leaders, several of whom were involved in the 1999 summit, to brainstorm ideas for how the summit would work. Former mayors Jeanette Blazier and Dennis Phillips were among this group.

The idea then got handed off to the city’s planning department to finalize, to locate keynote speakers and come up with an agenda.

Now, it’s time to hold the summit and see what “big ideas” the community has for Kingsport.

For Clark, he sees education as one of the most critical issues facing the city. If students can leave high school and enroll at the Academic Village, obtain a two- or four-year degree and then stay in Kingsport, that is the ideal situation for Clark and many other city leaders.

And while downtown has received quite a bit of attention over the past decade through streetscape improvements, a parking garage, Academic Village and public art, Clark believes even more can be done.

“When we talk to developers, they tell us Kingsport is landlocked and there’s not a lot of room to go compared to Gray and Johnson City, but we’re not landlocked in downtown,” Clark said. “We have over 220 acres of downtown living opportunities. We have three times that of Johnson City and six times that of Bristol. Where is the growth area? It’s under our nose here.”

The One Kingsport summit has its own website (www.onekingsport.com) complete with a slick welcoming video and information on partnering organizations, dining options, community news and upcoming events.

People unable to attend the summit can watch it live on the website and follow the updates on Facebook (OneKingsport) and Twitter (One_Kingsport).

It’s not every day that citizens have an opportunity to advance their city, Clark said in an opinion piece published in the Times-News. Now is the time for another conversation, Clark said.

“This is an exciting time for our city. Very challenging as well,” Clark said.

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