Depending on the context, the word “regionalism” has connotations of a time before modernity, of tribal rivalries and decentralized chaos. In other contexts, it can conjure imagery of being proud of where one is from, or what part of the world they have chosen to call home. It seems that regionalism really is what we make of it. I would argue that looking at the concept of regionalism through the lens of economic development and employing it as a tool for good can serve as one of the most powerful tools to forging the success of a community (or region of communities for that matter).
First, regionalism in its broadest sense serves as the bonding agent between groups of people and their geographical location. In our case, the highlands region offers some of the most beautiful natural amenities on the continent, and we’re perfectly positioned just a hop, skip, and a jump away from major Tennessee cities. These two factors are probably the most glaringly obvious reason for the Highlands growth and sustainability in recent years; but, with this continued trajectory toward success for our area, what aspects of regionalism play into that success? Economically speaking, the needs of our citizens in the highlands require solutions that are only practical at a regional level. Regional collaboration allows for more diverse work and job opportunities, more housing, many options for education, and most importantly a sense of quality of place. These wins, in turn, compound to strengthen our regional climate making our communities some of the top competitors in the state for manufacturing, healthcare, education, and so much more.
In my time serving the communities of the Upper Cumberland, I heard countless times that tourists and travelers don’t come here to experience one county; in fact, odds are many of them couldn’t be bothered by where the borders are at all. People moving to the area and those who have lived here their entire lives travel seamlessly across the counties to experience the region at large. On the flip side of the shared beauty and strengths we take such pride in, we share many of the same obstacles and challenges. I am glad, however, to report that local leadership within the Highlands communities not only share the ideal of identifying and more importantly solving these problems through a regional lens, but actively strive together to forge strength as we grow. Looking to the future, planning and adapting as a unified region is paramount to economic success.
At the Highlands Economic Partnership, we adhere to four core initiatives: Raise the median household income, fill open jobs, bolster a workforce pipeline, and strategically recruit business that meet community needs; and to be completely transparent, these goals simply cannot happen without harnessing the power of regionalism. All these initiatives are directly related to the people that comprise not just one community but the Highlands region as a whole. From prospective and existing business to the workforce that fuels their operation, the success of our organization is directly related to the success of the region at large- and that outcome can be measured through benchmarks like income levels, jobs filled, and business expanded.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, one must recognize that the power and purpose of regionalism spans beyond a conscious decision to engage in promoting it. Simply put, it’s going to happen organically. From the workforce to tourism to economic growth- these forces don’t occur to one town or one county alone. That is why we at the Highlands Economic partnership will continue to champion the benefits of a regional approach to economic growth, a unified vision of the future, and a shared sense of pride in the region we call home.