Regions Southwest Virginia

Tri-Cities seek new name to embrace a whole region

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“We need something that is unique and identifiable to us,” says Beth Rhinehart.
Photo by Earl Niekirk

It won’t be called the Appalachian Highlands, but not much else is clear.

Virginia and Tennessee business and political leaders in Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol want a new regional name, one that will embrace all three cities and much of the surrounding area.

“Tri-Cities is what a lot of people know us as,” says Beth Rhinehart, president and CEO of the Bristol (Virginia and Tennessee) Chamber of Commerce. “There are many tri-cities. There are even other tri-­cities in Virginia. ... We need something that is unique and identifiable to us.”

At this point, it’s not completely clear who is included in that “us.”

“That is the one part that has not been confirmed,” Rhinehart says.

The largest incarnation being considered would cover a 21-county area stretching from Wytheville in Southwest Virginia to Greeneville in central Tennessee, the former capital of the lost State of Franklin (an unrecognized, Revolutionary War-era autonomous territory).

“There have been efforts in the past to do regional alliance efforts that I’m not sure ever really got to the momentum and the stage where we are now,” Rhinehart says.

This effort began more than a year and a half ago when the presidents and chairpersons of the Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City chambers of commerce began meeting to discuss how to rename the area and encourage more regional cooperation to deal with what Rhinehart calls “the crisis that we’re in right now.”

“We’re all kind of struggling with the same statistics,” Rhinehart says, referring to local impacts from population decline and the opioid crisis.

According to the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, every city and county in far Southwest Virginia — from Wythe County to Lee County — has lost population since the last census. Meanwhile, the commonwealth’s population has increased by 6.5%. Several counties and cities in the region are suing pharmaceutical companies over the proliferation of opioids.

“It’s just recognizing that the crisis is maybe more urgent than maybe we’ve all accepted and this is maybe the time right now that we have to collectively do more in a very intentional and purposeful way,” she says.

While the chambers were discussing the region’s identity leaders from some of the largest employers in the area — Ballad Health, East Tennessee State University, Eastman Chemical Co. and the Bank of Tennessee — were having similar meetings with similar aims. The chamber group has already suggested one name, Appalachian Highlands, but the local governments rejected that after their constituents objected.

Those governments have engaged a consultant, which began a process that included more people and more input. The name that process generates is scheduled to be presented July 9.

“We don’t know anything about what it looks like right now,” Rhinehart says. “We’re hoping that whatever name comes out of it, we can all embrace it and get to work.”

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