The best way to draw business investment to the state is for each region to have a marketing strategy that plays to their strengths, gubernatorial candidate and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam told Blount business leaders.
Haslam was speaking at a business round table at Mountain National Bank on West Broadway in Maryville Tuesday. About 30 business people showed for the afternoon event. Following the discussion, Haslam joined Blount County realtor Angie Galyon Kirby for a door-to-door tour of Northfield subdivision.
Recruiting businesses to the state requires understanding the strength of each part of the state, Haslam said.
“Every area of the state has strengths,” he said. “You could put together a strategy around those strengths and recruit to that, but you can’t be everything to everybody.”
The state must also look beyond big business recruitment, Haslam told the group. While it is good to recruit big companies to the state, the state also must be fertile soil for existing businesses to grow, said the Republican who is running against xx in the Republican primary. “Sixty percent of jobs are created by existing businesses,” he said. “To do that, region by region you have to have a strategic economic development plan and ask what your strengths are.”
Haslam was asked about cutting costs in government. Government doesn’t get too big because people take on bad programs, he explained. “The problem is lots of things are good ideas. You have to prioritize and every once in a while say, ‘No.’”
Haslam said what his team did when he was elected mayor was go through each department and ask which department’s budgets grew faster than the rate of inflation. He also started asking what the city was doing that it didn’t need to be doing. In one instance, he realized the city owned properties around the World’s Fair site that needed to be sold and returned to the tax role.
Haslam thanked the business people for coming to the event. “One of the benefits of going from private business to government is you appreciate the value of risk,” he said. “I have great appreciation for people like you who stick your necks out and say, ‘I’m going to make this happen.’”
Following the meeting, Haslam answered questions from the press on how the Tennessee Diploma Project could affect recruiting businesses to the state. Tennessee is 42 in the nation in education which isn’t good for recruiting companies to the state, Haslam said.
“As long as we’re 42nd in education attainment in the country, we’re not going to be as strong at drawing businesses to Tennessee as we could be,” he said.
The Tennessee Diploma Project, part of the American Diploma Project, is an initiative the state is initiating this year to increase the standards for graduating. Currently the federal government lets states set their level of attainment for proficiency in exams such as the TCAPs. “Unfortunately, Tennessee sets theirs low. Last year, 90 percent of kids tested proficient at grade level. Next year we adopt national standards with the Diploma Project and only 20 percent will be proficient,” he said. “How the governor responds is everything. The next governor can say, ‘We’re not that bad,’ and back away from the standards, or he can stand in the door and say, ‘We’ve defined reality. Now what are we going to do to change reality?’”
Haslam said companies are attracted by the state’s right-to-work status, lack of a state income tax, beautiful environment and good work ethic on the part of its citizens. The complaints prospective employers have are questions about how well trained or skilled the workforce is, he said.
After the round table discussion at Mountain National Bank, Haslam toured the Northfield subdivision. Haslam said he tries to get out in neighborhoods across the state twice a week to knock on doors and meet residents. The idea is to get the message out but also to listen and learn about issues, he said.
“When I ran for mayor, I knocked on 12,000 doors,” he said. “If you really want to learn, you go to the people.”