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Location Notebook: Well-Connected Tennessee Innovating to Distribute Success

Tennessee ranks highly for its certified sites program as well as its transportation infrastructure, and the state is employing innovative strategies to address educational and other challenges.

Q4 2015
Students from Industrial Technology program at Jackson State Community College
Students from Industrial Technology program at Jackson State Community College
There are plenty of economic success stories to tell about Tennessee. Nashville, for example, has enjoyed an economy that’s among the nation’s most vibrant. Knoxville has exhibited solid economic performance, too. So have a variety of other places across the state.

But there are also 21 counties that the government has declared economically distressed, because of their comparatively low per capita income, high unemployment, or poverty rate. “We believe that is unacceptable; we’ve got to find a way to do more,” says Randy Boyd, the state’s commissioner of Economic and Community Development.

“Certainly, parts of the state are doing incredibly well. We have a lot of pockets of success,” Boyd says. “Our biggest challenge is making sure success is equally distributed.”

Innovative Strategies
That’s why the state recently announced an investment of $10 million in a new Rural Economic Development Fund designed to foster transformative economic development strategies. “We recognize we have to help rural areas,” Boyd says. “They don’t always have the resources they need to be successful.”
Certainly, parts of the state are doing incredibly well. We have a lot of pockets of success.. our biggest challenge is making sure success is equally distributed. Randy Boyd, Tennessee commissioner of Economic and Community Development
Among other things, the initiative pumps $6 million into site development grants to help communities bring sites up to shovel-ready status as part of the Select Tennessee Certified Sites program. There’s also a million dollars in grant funding to enhance rural tourism sites, and funding for such concepts as a Main Street Business Incubator program. “Communities must invest in themselves before the private sector will invest,” Gov. Bill Haslam observed in announcing the program.

It’s that kind of attitude that Boyd believes distinguishes Tennessee — identify a problem, then find the resources and innovations needed to solve it.

Enhancing College Attainment
Here’s another example: Tennessee’s college attainment has been lower than what state officials and national higher-education researchers believe it needs to be for an economically successful future. One study a couple of years ago ranked the state 43rd in the percentage of adults ages 25 to 64 with some kind of degree — only about a third had reached that educational level, according to the Lumina Foundation’s report. Some 20,000 Tennessee high school graduates each year were opting not to go any further with their education. Nearly a million Tennessee adults had some college credit but no degree or certificate to show for it.

From that challenge was born Drive to 55, a far-reaching initiative aimed at equipping at least 55 percent of the state’s adult population with a degree or certificate by the year 2025. It’s an ambitious task, and the state has outlined ambitious ways of tackling it. For example, the Tennessee Promise aims to ensure that everyone graduating from high school in Tennessee, beginning with the Class of 2015, can go to a community college or technical college tuition-free for two years.

It’s a last-dollar scholarship endowment that picks up whatever part of the tab is left after a student has lined up all appropriate funding from such sources as Pell and Hope. “All of these people are matched with mentors,” Boyd adds. These Volunteer State volunteers help guide students through the college application process, and the enthusiastic support for the concept is downright inspiring, he says. “It’s not a mandate, it’s a movement.”

Tennessee, a Strong Logistics Contender

Tennessee is home of FedEx, whose presence helps generate revenues to support aviation infrastructure, along with a lot of distribution-oriented operations. Recently, Tennessee has landed logistics-related projects from the likes of Total Quality Logistics, Cummins, and Ryder Supply Chain Solutions.
  1. Total Quality Logistics Knoxville, Tennessee, Operations Center

    In March 2015, The second-largest freight brokerage firm in the nation, Total Quality Logistics announced that it will expand operations, opening a new location in the heart of downtown Knoxville, Tennessee and creating at least 100 new jobs over the next five years in Knox County.

  2. Cummins, Inc. Expands Its Memphis, Tennessee, Parts And Distribution Center

    In May 2015, Cummins, Inc. announced that it will invest $6.7 million to expand its current parts and distribution center in Memphis, Tennessee. The expansion is expected to create 70 new jobs for Shelby County.

  3. Ryder Supply Chain Solutions Expands Its Spring Hill, Tennessee, Production Center

    In August 2015, Ryder Supply Chain Solutions announced that it will expand its warehousing, transportation, kitting and assembly operations in Spring Hill, Tennessee. The announcement represents an investment of $16.5 million and the creation of 606 new jobs in Maury County.

Another piece of the puzzle is Tennessee Reconnect. It’s all about getting those Tennessee adults with unfinished degrees or certificates to come back and wrap up their education. All adults are allowed to attend one of the 27 Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology completely free of tuition and fees while they earn a diploma or certificate.

What does it take to put such programs together? “Collaboration and teamwork,” Boyd says. “We’re really working hard to make sure everything at the state level is working directly with local stakeholders and in perfect alignment with education.”

For its part, the Lumina Foundation finds the Tennessee efforts to be promising. While its report on attainment declared that Tennessee has a lot of room to improve, the foundation’s researchers say the state has set solid goals. “It is among only 16 states that meet the criteria for a strong state attainment goal. Most notably, the state’s goal addresses the critical need to close gaps in attainment for underrepresented students, such as minority students, low-income students, and working adults,” the report notes. “Many educators, policymakers, employers, and community leaders are stepping up to take action.”

Strength in Infrastructure
Other Tennessee strengths helped the state land in the #4 spot in Area Development’s Top States for Doing Business evaluation, and it headed the list in infrastructure and global access. Especially strong factors in this regard were competitive utility rates, highway accessibility, certified shovel-ready sites, and energy reliability.
University of Guelph science complex
Cummins, Inc. is expanding its industrial parts distribution center in Memphis to support the further growth of global supply chain requirements.
Boyd says some of that infrastructure strength can be attributed to fiscal responsibility. “We’re one of only five states that has zero debt on our roads,” he points out. It also helps to be the home of such successful logistics players such as FedEx, whose presence helps generate revenues to support aviation infrastructure — along with a lot of distribution-oriented operations. No wonder Tennessee lands logistics-related projects from the likes of Total Quality Logistics, Cummins, and Ryder Supply Chain Solutions, to name just a few that have announced locations or expansions recently.

Boyd can point to a range of attributes that make Tennessee a strong logistics contender, including the fact that it borders more states than any other state, has good rail and water access, and has well-maintained highway and aviation infrastructure. But when defining what differentiates his state, he’ll often return to the people and their attitude.

When it comes to state agencies and local stakeholders and educational institutions, “We are working very well as a team in every direction,” he says. And the enthusiasm among volunteer mentors supporting the Tennessee Promise program speaks volumes about the spirit and ethic of the people of Tennessee, he says. “It’s pretty inspiring. It’s my #1 selling point.”
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