TVA holds pitch event for its “Community Innovation Academy” participants during yesterday’s “Startup Week CHA”

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Seven of the communities participating in the second cohort of the “TVA Community Innovation Academy” pitched their ideas yesterday afternoon during an event that was part of day four of “Startup Week CHA.”

It was one of the few virtual events scheduled during the week, but thanks to Melissa Halsell, Economic Development Program Manager with TVA and one of the most dedicated readers of, we were able to listen in on the hybrid event where leaders from the participating communities shared their entrepreneurial ideas to address a significant challenge they are facing.

The seven-month program, led by Guillermo Mazier, Founder of Collective Intelligence and Vice President of Global Innovation for Conway Data Inc., is designed to help leaders in those communities unlock the tools, tactics, and skills needed to work more effectively and collaboratively to address needs and spark more economic growth and shared community prosperity.

As described in the promotional material for yesterday’s pitch session, participants in the Academy were tasked with organizing a community innovation team, identifying a critical community problem, and incubating a solution that could solve it and positively support growth in their local economies. Teams have completed ecosystem maps, performed community innovation capacity assessments, and engaged in hours of collaboration meetings.

Fortunately, one of the seven communities – Greeneville and Greene County – had already secured core funding for its project, according to what Jeff Taylor, President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Greene County Partnership, said in a pre-recorded video. The project addresses what he described as “a lack of connectivity” that was exacerbated by COVID-19, and the solution is a robust WiFi network in the downtown area.

The other six pitches came from four Tennessee communities – Cookeville, Gallatin, Livingston and Overton County, and Lawrenceburg and Lawrence County – and two Alabama counties in the TVA service area – Limestone (Athens) and Jackson. While four of the six are fairly rural, only two specifically addressed workforce challenges, and those were the two Alabama communities. A third addressed a topic that could impinge on workforce availability.

  • Bethany Shockney, President and CEO of the Limestone County Economic Development Association Inc., described a workforce challenge as the region expects 25,000 new jobs to become available in the next three years. The two-part plan that was outlined is titled “SmartForce” and involves ensuring that the emerging workforce is ready for those jobs as they become available while the community is also targeting underserved demographics, specifically with a Hispanic Job Fair.
  • Nathan Lee, President and CEO of the Jackson County Economic Development Authority, described a number of workforce-related challenges his hometown is facing. They range from 42 percent of the workforce being at least 50 years of age to nearly 4,000 commuting elsewhere daily for jobs, and low labor force participation rates among other county residents. The community’s solution is purchasing and staffing “Jackson Junction,” a site that would bring all of the existing workforce training programs under one roof and provide a place for shared training to occur.

The Tennessee proposals were:

  • A group called the “Cookeville Innovation Champions” who are focused on addressing the lack of jobs in the community for engineering graduates of Tennessee Tech University. “Our engineers are leaving and not coming back,” Stephen Crook, Vice President of Economic Development at the Highlands Economic Partnership. “Seventy-six percent want to remain in the region.” Their solution is something called the “Engineers’ Nest,” a physical space with services ranging from co-working to placement, coaching and training.
  • A group named “Grow Up Gallatin” that is focused on redeveloping blighted and brownfield sites in the downtown area in a city described as the fourth fastest growing in Tennessee. “Blighted areas impede Gallatin’s strategic goal of an expanded, walkable area,” said Rosemary Bates, Special Projects Director for the city. The 91-acre site that has been targeted by the group could increase Gallatin’s annual property tax collections by $5 million when fully developed.
  • “Building the Burg” was the name given to the initiative in Lawrenceburg and Lawrence County to address a critical housing shortage, particularly for entry level homes. Ryan Egly, President and CEO of the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce, said the community has 19,000 homes but needs another 2,400 by 2025, and the current construction rate is only about 400 annually. Obviously, lack of affordable housing impacts the ability to attract many workers.
  • Addressing the sales tax drain and the loss of business for local retailers was the focus of the project presented by Shannon Cantrell, Executive Director of the Livingston-Overton County Chamber of Commerce. “Local First” is an initiative to encourage people to buy locally first, addressing the estimated $92 million in sales that occur outside the county and result in about $2 million each year in lost sales tax collections.

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