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November 01, 2018 | Tom Ballard

Haslam, Rolfe engage in fun-filled fireside chat to kick-off “Governor’s Conference”

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Attendees at yesterday’s opening session of the annual “Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development” – Bill Haslam’s last – were treated to a non-traditional luncheon presentation that showcased the Governor’s personality.

With a few tweaks, it was the engaging and humorous style that he has displayed the past two years at Launch Tennessee’s “36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival” as the moderator of conversations with FedEx Founder Fred Smith and Jim Haslam, his father and Founder of the Pilot Flying J chain.

As I recall, the Governor’s Luncheon is normally the concluding event. Yesterday, it was the opener. And, whereas the Governor usually makes a speech, Governor Haslam actually engaged in a fireside chat with Commissioner Bobby Rolfe where his dry, self-deprecating sense of humor was clearly on display. It was also a role reversal from the “36|86” sessions where the Governor asked the questions.

The light and happy tone was set early when Commissioner Rolfe asked the Governor what he would miss most about the position after leaving office. Without missing a beat, he answered, “Not having to go through the security line at the airport.” It drew laughs from the crowd of close to 1,000 attendees with the Governor adding,” Also never being late” regardless of the time he actually arrived at an event.

Then, on a more serious note, he said what he would really miss the most was “being in the middle of things that matter (and now not) being able to make a difference.”

The Governor seemed pleased to say that both major candidates to succeed him in next Tuesday’s general election “get it” in terms of economic development. His advice to them: “don’t back-up on the commitment to education.”

A recurring theme of the Commissioner’s questions and the Governor’s responses centered on the “Drive to 55” and two key components – Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect.

As those in economic development know, the Governor is frequently the closer on big recruitment deals, something that Governor Haslam has clearly done. How easy was it?

“I’ve sold things that are easy and things that are hard,” he said. “Selling Tennessee is easy.”

The Commissioner reinforced the results, noting that overall job growth in the Volunteer State over the past nearly eight years totals 450,000 positions.

In terms of the state’s recent emphasis on rural communities, the Governor and Commissioner proudly noted that slightly more than 50 percent of the new jobs created in the first 10 months of this calendar year occurred in rural areas. That is up from 28 percent just three years ago.

So, what comes next for the Knoxville native after the January 19 inauguration of his successor?

“I don’t know,” the Governor said. “We’ll see. If you’re hiring, ring me up.”

The luncheon occurred on Crissy Haslam’s birthday, and she was briefly saluted by the Tennessee State University Marching Band.

We’ll have more coverage of the “Governor’s Conference” in Monday’s edition.

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