LC wants more from EDA
By: Ben Greene
Source: Loudon County News-Herald

Lenoir City officials claim their investment in Loudon County’s Economic Development Agency (EDA) isn’t paying off and they want to see President Pat Phillips more often to learn how he’s improving economic prospects in Lenoir City.

"Pat should be up here asking us, ‘What can I do for you?’ " said council member Gene Hamby.

Councilman Gene "Blackie" Johnson said, "We’ve been paying for something we didn’t get."

A general dissatisfaction with Phillips’ work was the consensus of Mayor Matt Brookshire and the city council, with Curtis Williams absent, at a Wednesday afternoon workshop with EDA board member Jim Condra.

County Mayor George Miller chose Condra to be the head of a committee designed to examine the conflict between Lenoir City and the EDA that began when Lenoir City decided to fund EDA for only one quarter this year. Lenoir City had been funding EDA at the rate of $6,000 per quarter.

The city officials present stated they were not unhappy with the work of EDA’s assistant director Kathy Knight and noted she often comes to city meetings.

However, Brookshire said, "It would be helpful to hear from Pat on a more frequent basis."

According to Phillips and Knight – who were not present at Wednesday’s meeting in Lenoir City - her position was created by the EDA to focus more on commercial growth which they said largely relates to Lenoir City’s future economic development.

Phillips and Knight also noted they both work on industrial and commercial projects although Knight focuses on commercial and Phillips focuses on industrial.

Both agreed they weren’t aware of any problems Lenoir City officials had with their office or their work until recently.

Phillips said, "There’s certainly a communications breakdown we both need to work on."

He added it would certainly help him if the council would address issues they aren’t happy with throughout the year saying he hadn’t heard any negative comments until the third and final reading of the budget, which cut the city’s funding to EDA.

Brookshire said he knows information must be limited during the process of a business deciding to move to an area; however, he said he would appreciate Phillips "being available, letting us know what they are doing for Lenoir City."

"If we’re going to contribute financially, then we expect positive support and response from them," he added.

A main concern of Lenoir City officials stems from negative responses they said they have received from businesses which decided not to locate in Lenoir City.

City officials said they heard the businesses were given a negative impression of the city by the EDA office.

Council member and vice chairman of the EDA Eddie Simpson said of companies, "The biggest thing that bothers me is the negative response we get." He explained there should have been a positive response from these companies but because of Phillips, Simpson claimed they have a negative attitude.

Phillips responded to the claims his office has discouraged businesses from locating in the city by stating, "That’s never happened. I don’t know what they’re referring to."

Knight said the office works for all municipalities in the county and they work to locate a company where the company wants to be.

One of the main points of contention for city officials was an inequality they perceived in the work EDA does for Lenoir City in comparison to the rest of the county.

The officials said they noticed only two of the 17 projects EDA worked on in the last year affected Lenoir City. Phillips presented the list at a recent EDA meeting.

Moreover, Brookshire added of the Visual Improvement Program and the Façade Design Program, "Those things I had to push Pat very hard to do."

However, Phillips said, "We initiated the VIP, we’re the ones that came up with it in the beginning."

He added four other projects they worked on last year benefited Lenoir City. These included: Greenleaf Industries; work on increasing retail developments in Loudon County; a new interactive Web site for both Loudon County municipalities and prospective businesses; and the formation of an environmental air quality task force. The task force would help ensure state and federal funding for transportation isn’t lost because they county doesn’t meet air quality standards.

Phillips also added the Career Center located in downtown Lenoir City was almost entirely the work of the EDA.

"We basically did the whole thing," Phillips said.

Vice Mayor Tony Aikens said he thinks it is unwise for the council to withdraw funding from the EDA at this time since the city is working toward a higher level of intergovernmental cooperation in the county.

He also said he doesn’t think three months is enough time for their questions and concerns to be appropriately dealt with.

However, the other council members and the mayor said there had been problems for nearly five years.

The council asked Condra to study the implications of Lenoir City being a reduced partner in the EDA by making a smaller contribution.

Simpson and the other city officials said they were concerned about their use of city tax dollars. He noted they felt responsible to use city funds in a way that best benefits the city and its residents.

Condra encouraged the council to remain a member of the EDA pointing out the money isn’t the issue as much as the solidarity and unified front the EDA can present to prospective businesses when all the municipalities have a good working relationship with one another.

Aikens said Wednesday he would like for the council and mayor to meet with Phillips so he can hear their complaints and respond. Phillips and Knight said they were not invited to Wednesday’s workshop.

"They told us not to come," said Phillips. Even so, Phillips agreed there was a need for improved communication between his office and Lenoir City officials.

"I’d prefer to talk with them one-on-one actually," he said.

Phillips noted it was important for he and Knight to be included in their meetings.

"We want an idea of how they can better communicate with us," he explained.

Knight said she and Phillips both want to improve Lenoir City’s economic prospects.

"We want to work with Lenoir City and we have worked with Lenoir City," she stressed.