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July 12, 2020 | Tom Ballard

Congressman Fleischmann knew nothing about the TVC a decade ago, but is now its greatest advocate

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the concluding article in a series focused on the history of the Tennessee Valley Corridor and its series of Summits. Twenty-five years after the inaugural event in Oak Ridge, the silver anniversary Summit will be a five-part series of 90-minute virtual sessions kicking-off this Thursday {July 16} and continuing for the next four Thursdays.)

The individual who is arguably the Tennessee Valley Corridor’s (TVC) biggest advocate today knew nothing about the organization a decade ago.

“No sir, it was not on my radar,” Third District Congressman Chuck Fleischmann said during a recent interview as he reflected back to 2010 when he was one of 11 individuals seeking to win the Republican primary and the chance to succeed incumbent Congressman Zach Wamp who was retiring. “I had very limited knowledge of Oak Ridge and the Corridor.”

At the time, he and his wife were practicing attorneys in Chattanooga, and it was the Ooltewah resident’s first race for public office.

After winning the primary and subsequent general election, the Congressman said, “I immediately sat down with Helen Hardin to begin a process of learning.” She had been Congressman Wamp’s Chief of Staff and remained on Congressman Fleischmann’s staff for several years as Senior Policy Advisor.

During our interview, the now five-term Member of Congress described those early discussions he had about the Corridor and the broader set of federal assets in the northern part of the district he now represented. At the time, I was in career two at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), so I had the opportunity to observe the intensity he exhibited as he drank from the proverbial firehose, learning everything he could about Oak Ridge, the science and technology that existed in the region, and both the challenges and opportunities that faced its federal assets.

“I had a decision to make about whether or not I was going to continue the Corridor that was the original idea of (Senator) Lamar Alexander,” Congressman Fleischmann explained. “I had concerns at first, but I also saw the benefits of learning more about other areas.”

He also admits that the TVC provided a forum and a vehicle “to prove myself,” acknowledging that he did not have the political clout as a first-term Member of Congress that he does today.

Now, as Congressman Fleischmann prepares to lead the 25th anniversary celebration in a series of 90-minute virtual sessions over the next five Thursdays, he relishes the role that he plays in not only championing but advancing the Oak Ridge community that he has come to so fully understand and appreciate as well as the many other assets that are located across the TVC region that spans 12 Congressional Districts in five states.

The Corridor incorporates federal assets like those in Oak Ridge, Huntsville, and Tullahoma; universities like the University of Tennessee campuses in Chattanooga and Knoxville, Auburn, East Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, University of Alabama in Huntsville, University of North Carolina Asheville, and Virginia Tech; numerous community colleges; and specialized resources like The Center for Rural Development in Somerset, KY.

For Congressman Fleischmann, the old adage about strength in numbers certainly applies.

“The TVC gives its members a decidedly competitive advantage,” he says, adding an important caveat: “Given the new normal in the post-COVID world, regional collaboration will be critical for competitiveness.”

That’s also something about which the Congressman is mindful as he prepares to chair the unique celebration where participants will gather virtually rather than as they have for 24 years in large meeting rooms.

“I’m disappointed that we had to do it this way,” he says. “This is a tough time, but we don’t want to lose momentum or lose our cohesiveness.”

Congressman Fleischmann believes one of the strengths of the TVC and a key reason in its longevity is the fact that the “Corridor is mobile,” as he characterizes it. National Summits or Partnership Events have been held in 13 different cities in the 25-year history of the TVC.

“It engulfs everyone, and they feel a part of it rather than apart from it,” he adds.

When we asked him some of the most memorable highlights during his 10 years being involved with the TVC, the Congressman cited a number, starting with many of the individuals – two Governors, the Secretary of Energy, and the then House Majority Leader – who have spoken at previous National Summits. “They came to see what we have here,” he said of the Corridor.

Another highlight is the strong relationship that has emerged between Chattanooga and ORNL. He recalls then Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz advocating for national labs to establish significant collaborations outside the places they are located, and he’s pleased that it occurred in his home community in a significant way.

Another important initiative is the TVC Congressional Caucus, a group that champions the region and its priorities with their fellow Members of Congress. Congressman Fleischmann jointly leads that effort with Congressman Phil Roe of Tennessee First District who is retiring at the end of this term.

“The future of the TVC is bright,” he says. “Our membership is strong and will continue to grow. We all grow and benefit from one another as we collaborative across the Corridor.”


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