Regional competitiveness symposium focuses on assets and challenges

The general consensus among about a dozen panelists who participated in Wednesday’s regional competitiveness symposium was the area is fairly well-positioned for long-term success with the exception of educational attainment and workforce development skills.

Kevin Anton, Chief Sustainability Officer for Alcoa, Inc., probably best captured the sentiment when he said, “The reality (about East Tennessee) is better than the headlines.” Matt Murray, Director of the Baker Center at the University of Tennessee, reiterated that perspective by noting that the Brookings Institution cited Knoxville as one of only three metropolitan areas in the country to have recovered from the recession.

Both Anton and Murray were two of five participants in the closing panel of the event that was sponsored by PlanET and Innovation Valley, Inc. (IVI). The all afternoon session was moderated by Ted Abernathy, Executive Director of the Southern Growth Policies Board, who told the 150 attendees, “You came here to determine how you can win, not lose.”

Abernathy, who facilitates a number of sessions like Wednesday’s, challenged the attendees to view regional cooperation as similar to building a Habitat for Humanity house. Everyone has his or her role.

“Collaboration is not about loving each other,” he said in his opening comments. Abernathy reminded the group that “most plans fail” and listed the typical reasons – not futuristic, not realistic, not doable, not actionable, not specific enough, not resourced adequately, and not aligned with the agendas of key stakeholders.

As he closed the symposium, Abernathy challenged the group to “be specific in what you want to do, but remember you can’t do everything at once.”

The event kicked-off with comments from three PlanET city mayors – Tom Beehan (Oak Ridge), Madeline Rogero (Knoxville) and Tom Taylor (Maryville) – and a brief keynote from Murray, who reminded the attendees that “the (region’s) future is in our hands.”

Panelists discussed a variety of issues that are critical to the successful competitiveness of the region. They included everything from greenways, the environment and housing to health, transportation including air service, technology and obviously education and workforce development.

Several panelists emphasized that it is not enough to simply focus on technical skills. They also need associates who possess soft skills such as an ability to communicate and work as part of a team.

Thom Mason, Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), said much has been done on the education front such as higher standards and now the really tough challenge of execution has to occur.

Abernathy asked the last panel if the region lived-up to the brand of being Innovation Valley.

“There’s only one Silicon Valley,” Mason said. In addition to being ORNL Director, he has been the only Chair of the IVI Board of Directors.

“Silicon Valley is not our profile,” Mason explained, adding that we need to understand our science and technology assets and match those with industry needs. Alcoa’s Anton said that is exactly what his corporation has done, bringing 80 energy executives from around the world to Oak Ridge last year to strategize with ORNL scientists.

Ted Wampler, Jr., President and Chief Operating Officer of Wampler’s Farm Sausage Company, had the most humorous comment of the day while also making a point about the region and its competitiveness. “My daddy used to say he’d rather die by hanging in East Tennessee rather than by natural death anywhere else.”

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