The initiative is called Project 95, a name that refers to the number of Tennessee counties and the relative status of one of them. “Here in Tennessee, we have different tier levels based on unemployment and poverty,” says Amy New, assistant commissioner for Rural Development with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. “Hancock County ranks at the very bottom in pretty much every statistic.” What can we do for these counties to make sure we have zero distressed counties? What can we really focus on to make a big difference? Amy New, assistant commissioner, Rural Development, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development
A number of Tennessee counties are considered to be economically distressed, she says, even as the state as a whole has been experiencing unprecedented economic growth. State officials are determined to change the fortunes of those areas that have not yet caught up with the economic boom felt elsewhere in Tennessee.
The question: “What can we do for these counties to make sure we have zero distressed counties?” New ponders. “What can we really focus on to make a big difference?”
Hancock County sits along the border between Tennessee and Virginia, in the northeastern part of the state. It’s among the state’s least populous, home to roughly 7,000 people. It’s a close-knit community with a family feel, but it has more than its share of poverty. “It’s one of the most beautiful counties in the state, but its rural setting and location away from interstate highway connections have left it short of jobs and opportunity,” New says.
“About 80 percent of the workforce drives out of county for work,” observes Amanda Martin, director of Special Projects for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. With Project 95, “there is an opportunity to attract people back into the county.”
“If you build it, they will come.”
The centerpiece of Project 95 is an “if you build it, they will come” concept. The idea is to create a new “employer of choice” by crafting an irresistible opportunity for some fortunate business. The state pulled together a diverse cast of players to start figuring out what kind of opportunity to create.
“We decided a call center would be the best thing,” New says. A call center, she explains, needs communications connections and talented people to fill the seats, but its transportation requirements are minimal.
Putting a call center in a place such as Hancock County has the potential to solve one of the biggest problems the call center industry faces: a constant need to hire and train new employees. “When a call center is in an urban area, you’ll get a high turnover rate,” Martin says. “But a call center in Hancock County will have an opportunity to be an employer of choice. They have an incredibly hardworking workforce.”
“We talked to different call centers that would want to be in rural communities and want to be the employer of choice, and we talked to the county mayor about available sites,” New says. “They did not have any spec buildings, but they did have a piece of property that was absolutely perfect, and they already owned the property. We started from there.”
About 80 percent of the workforce drives out of county for work. With Project 95, there is an opportunity to attract people back into the county. Amanda Martin, director, Special Projects, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development What Project 95 is offering is an 18,000-square-foot building in Sneedville, designed with call center occupancy in mind, customizable to meet the needs of whatever business chooses to occupy it. It’ll be the right size for a 100- to 200-seat call center operation. Initial construction began in June 2017, and the aim is to have a call center operational by the fall of 2018. The thinking, says New: “If we build this state-of-the-art building, wouldn’t it be great if we could do a reverse pitch?”
According to Hancock County Mayor Thomas Harrison, “The impact of what 150-plus jobs could do for our community and residents is enormous.”
While Project 95 sounds like a speculative building project, that’s really just one part of the plan to create an economic shot-in-the-arm for Hancock County. After all, poverty and lack of opportunity tend to breed a host of related societal problems, and Project 95 has numerous components aimed at resolving other issues, too.
Joining forces to make a difference is a partnership of local, state, and federal agencies all committed to addressing issues and creating opportunities. Here are the players, and the areas with which they are tasked:
- Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development: This agency is handling design and construction of the facility as well as recruitment of a tenant for the building. The department has also put together an incentive package.
- Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development: New jobs require new skills, so this department is coming up with a tailored workforce development program that will support call center operations. It’ll also help with recruitment when the time comes.
- Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and Department of Health: Substance abuse is a big issue in rural communities across the country. These experts have established a 10-part program to target substance abuse and ensure a drug-free workforce.
- Department of Tourism: Part of the appeal of Hancock County is its natural beauty, and this department is lending a hand in developing tourism assets and providing marketing assistance.
- Department of Education: This department will work to improve literacy rates by administering a Read to be Ready program.
- Tennessee Valley Authority: The TVA’s expertise in recruitment and marketing will benefit Project 95.
- East Tennessee State University: This Johnson City institution is developing and implementing a Model to Interrupt Social Determinants of Rural Health.
- Hancock County Government: The county is offering no-cost rental of the call center building, along with other local support as needed.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development: This federal agency is chipping in funding to support construction of the call center.
- First Tennessee Development District: This agency is involved for administration of grant funding and programmatic support.
Project 95 began its marketing phase in July 2017, with the hope of attracting applications by the fall of 2017. The project’s leaders believe they have an enticing deal to offer, informed by their planning conversations with potential call center operators interested in rural locations. “There is a really great incentive package. We’ve put together a great deal,” Martin says.
If all goes well, the state will consider taking this kind of multifaceted approach to other distressed counties in the future. “The initiative has so many aspects,” Martin says. “We feel like this is a really innovative approach.”