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How to Reunify the Tri-Cities MSA

Posted by on Jun 28, 2018

By John Speropulos

Discussions about reunification of the Johnson City-Kingsport-Bristol Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) have garnered a gratifying volume of interest and support in the past month or so.

On LinkedIn, my blog about the topic was seen by almost 3,000 people. Of that, a little over 100 were CEOs or executive directors. The Business Journal also reprinted it, and the Kingsport-Times News weighed in with a supporting editorial. Those are just a few examples. But what this tells me is people are genuinely interested in advancing more regionalism in Northeast Tennessee.

There was also a follow up by another blog – Core Data. It was based on an interview with the point person for the Office of Management and Budget’s review committee for MSA delineations. It also resulted in a quick Census Bureau review of commuting data to see if the area’s combined commuter pattern could be a springboard to consolidation. The result wasn’t encouraging. The idea of a combined commuter pattern was rejected, and the review said that based on the most recent data neither the Johnson City nor Kingsport-Bristol MSAs met the unification benchmark. The full explanation can be found here.

All of this is background to a process that seems a little arbitrary and dismissive of the reality that the ten counties that made up the original MSA are one marketplace and economy worthy of a single data voice. Unfortunately, the last major review of the process that split the region did not receive any comment. Fortunately, another review is or will soon be underway.

The strongest argument for unification is the region has changed since 2000 when it was broken up because in the Census Bureau’s words, it was a “larger, looser-knit region than its component metropolitan or micropolitan statistical areas.” During the past 18 years, the region has grown. The growth was not as fast as some would like but it has grown despite the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and a conversion of a manufacturing-centric economy to a service economy. On the horizon, that will expand with significant health care delivery and education components and a fledgling aerospace cluster.

That future isn’t based on a looser-knit or divided region. Recent comments from Eastman Chemical CEO Mark Costa and Ballad’s Alan Levine can be used to set the focus. They’re committed to unified regional action to carry the region into the future. And both have pledged support to that end because as a region it has a stronger voice than any of the individual towns or counties can exert.

Reunification of the old Johnson City-Kingsport-Bristol MSA isn’t a step toward consolidated governments or infringing on any jurisdictions’ sovereignty. It’s about data collection and reporting on the economic marketplace. It wouldn’t put us in the nation’s top 100 MSAs. But it would be in the top 110. Currently, none of the local region’s Census-defined regions are large enough to get that critical first look when data reports on the largest MSAs are released. And since some Census data releases are based on the size of the MSA, you must wait for months for the information. That’s simply not good enough in a data-driven business and economic climate.

Congressman Phil Roe recently told the Business Journal during a meeting in their office in Johnson City, “It has never made any sense to me to have Kingsport – a nine-iron from here – to be in a different MSA.” He said he would be all for a plan to reunify the MSAs. The White House Office of Management and Budget makes updates to MSA definitions based on US Census Bureau population estimates. Nick Mulvaney is director of the OMB. “I know Nick Mulvaney very well,” Roe said. “I would be glad to call him up and talk to him.”

The 10 counties that made up the old MSA can be found in the first blog on this topic. They have more in common today than they did two decades ago and are worthy of a formal reunification review. OMB has a process for just that. And now that Congressman Roe has said he would support a plan to reunify the MSAs those who like the idea should contact his office with their support.