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Mayor, City Manager provide a 'State of the City' message

Matthew Lane • Updated Nov 20, 2015 at 7:34 AM

KINGSPORT - Kingsport has been operating within its means the past two years, while focusing on the fundamentals of city services, including improvements to infrastructure, an increase in road paving and placing an emphasis on safety.

And though the Model City has attractive assets, such as a strong industrial and medical environment, an academic village and quality of life amenities, Kingsport does have some challenges in the arena of housing, attracting and retaining people and limited options in high-end retail and eateries.

City Manager Jeff Fleming and Mayor John Clark delivered this message to around 100 business and community leaders, city staff and members of the media on Thursday during the annual “State of the City” event.

Fleming began his 20-minute talk with a summary of the key messages for 2015 and 2016, noting the budget did not include a tax increase, the city has driven down the number of city employees per capita the past 10 years and the latest borrowing plan was reduced by $28.2 million than previously recommended.

“The bottom line is we've been responsible with the resources we've been given,” Fleming said. “We hope we've earned your trust in terms of managing the public's money.”

Fleming has been in the city manager's position for about 18 months and when he came on board last year, he set a more conservative financial tone than his predecessor. Right out of the gate, Fleming said he wanted the city to focus more on the fundamentals of city services.

In his presentation on Thursday, Fleming illustrated this point with a pyramid graphic showing the hierarchy of needs of a city – water, sewer and roads at the bottom, then rising up to education, housing, parks and finally at the top – leisure services and the arts.

“If you don't take care of the essentials first, you'll lose the confidence of the electorate,” Fleming said. “But you can't just do the bottom of the pyramid. You have to do the top to achieve full potential.”

Since 2000, property tax revenue in the city has increased by 57 percent, while sales tax revenue has grown by 26 percent. More than 50 percent of the city's annual budget is funded through property tales; approximately 25 percent of the budget comes from sales tax collections.

With a median home price of $115,000 and annual property taxes of just under $600 a year, Fleming said Kingsport is an exceptionally affordable place to live.

“We have a very low cost of living and even if it goes up a little bit, we'd still be lower than most,” Fleming said.

In the past 10 years, Kingsport has spent nearly $200 million on capital projects, including $30 million on road projects, $19 million on a new elementary school, $19.5 million on education, $18.2 million on higher education, $19.8 million on the aquatic center and $14 million on parks, leisure and cultural items.

Fleming said $50 million alone was spent on the annexation areas within the last 10 years.

Wrapping up his discussion, Fleming briefly listed off some of the accomplishments during the past year, such as the new apartment complexes in the works, the removal of the negative outlook by Moody's, the gains with the paving schedule and the creation of Brickyard and Centennial parks.

Where Fleming focused more on the nuts and bolts of city operations (along with a lot of figures and statistics), Clark's discussion was more visionary and tied in with the recent One Kingsport summit.

Clark told those in attendance on Thursday the summit was meant to start the conversation about Kingsport's future, setting a road map for the next five years.

“When you look around the city, no one can deny the progress that has been made,” Clark said. “Fast forward to 2016 and those improvements become our foundation. Where do we go from here?”

During the recent One Kingsport summit, Clark made the point of saying he wants Kingsport to become a vibrant, 24/7 city rather than an 8 to 5 commuter town. However, census data would lead people to believe Kingsport is on the path of becoming exactly what Clark is fighting against.

Kingsport has a population of more than 50,000 residents, but on any given day of the work week, around 20,000 people come into the city. But at the end of the day, they go back home to Johnson City, Sullivan and Hawkins counties and southwest Virginia.

“For a small city, 20,000 is a lot,” Clark said. “But I see that as an opportunity as well. Having people here is a good thing. The challenge is how do we convert them into Kingsport residences.”

To help battle this retention and attraction issue, Clark said Kingsport must increase the amount of marketing and promotion it does. The city recently hired a person to handle marketing and public relations, and is expected to add another staff member for this department, along with a budget to fund marketing and promotion efforts.

“We need to make the city so appealing and attractive, people will want to come and spent a little time here,” Clark said.

The other piece of the puzzle is for the summit to produce some “amazing results and recommendations” for a five-year road map for the city, Clark said. Seven focus areas were discussed as the recent summit, including ones on housing, downtown revitalization and job creation, and committee have been formed to come up with specific recommendations.

Clark said the game plan is over the next four months, these seven committee will meet, take what was brainstormed at the summit and come up with recommendations to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen in early April.

When asked, on a scale of 1 to 100, where does Kingsport stand, Clark said he would gauge the Model City at 75.

“With the recommendations from the summit, I think we could be at 95 or 100 percent in five years,” Clark said. “We have a long history in Kingsport of trying and doing something that is special. I don't want to be a me-too type of place.”

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