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From Site Selection magazine, January 2020

Innovation Center Report Eyes Two Tennessee Metros

GIVE grants boost vocational education programs in rural counties.

Carvana opened its newest car vending machine in Memphis in November 2019. Another can be found near Nashville.


Knoxville and Nashville are among 35 metro areas named in a recent Brookings report as having the potential to become one of America’s next high-tech innovation centers. “The Case for Growth Centers: How to Spread Tech Innovation Across America,” from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), argues that it’s time for the federal government to take aggressive steps to counter the nation’s epidemic of regional division and avoid ceding its innovation lead to China.

The U.S. innovation economy is concentrated in too few locations, such as Silicon Valley, Boston and Seattle, creating a “winner-take-most” dynamic, the report asserts. The result is not only increasing regional inequality and lost opportunity in the heartland, but reduced U.S. competitiveness as well.

“America’s successful tech hubs haven’t emerged by accident — most are products of deliberate policy choices and federal government support,” says Robert D. Atkinson, report co-author and president of ITIF. “The neoclassical economics idea that markets can be left to drive innovation has instead left the heartland behind. A strong federal effort focused on helping some metros transition into self-sustaining tech hubs can help more Americans benefit from the significant opportunities enabled by high-tech industry growth.”

Adds Mark Muro, co-author and Brookings Metro senior fellow and policy director: “The nation’s tech-driven spatial divides have reached emergency status and won’t resolve themselves on their own. It’s time for the nation to push back against these trends and conduct a major experiment to see if we can help eight to 10 promising metros emerge as really dynamic anchors of growth in the nation’s heartland.”

“America’s successful tech hubs haven’t emerged by accident — most are products of deliberate policy choices and federal government support.”
Robert D. Atkinson, President, Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF)

The authors urge the federal government to intervene in part because the resources states and cities can bring to bear are limited. How? By creating eight to 10 new regional “growth centers” across the heartland. Central to this package will be a direct R&D funding surge worth up to $700 million a year in each metro area for 10 years; other inputs, including an antitrust exemption for firms to collaborate on location decisions, are also critical. A rough estimate of the cost of such a program suggests that a growth centers surge focused on 10 metro areas would cost the federal government on the order of $100 billion over 10 years. That is substantially less than the 10-year cost of U.S. fossil fuel subsidies.

Thirty-five “potentially transformative metro areas” (including Knoxville and Nashville) are candidates for growth center designation, the report notes. Candidates are situated in at least 19 states, lie in multiple regions (especially the Great Lakes, Upper South, and Intermountain West), and exist far removed from the coastal superstars.

Rural Districts Win GIVE Grants

In November, Governor Bill Lee announced projects receiving funding through the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) program, which prioritizes learning opportunities in rural counties and enhances career and technical education statewide. In February 2019, the General Assembly approved $25 million in the governor’s budget to incentivize collaboration at the local level among stakeholders such as higher education institutions, K-12 and economic development partners.

“We are proud to work with the General Assembly to pass the GIVE initiative and expand career and technical education for Tennessee students,” said Lee. “These funds directly support our workforce development efforts in distressed and at-risk counties and are a key component of our strategy to prioritize rural Tennessee.”

The award process began in June when the Tennessee Higher Education Commission issued a competitive Request for Proposals (RFP). Each proposal was required to show local data that clearly identified both workforce needs and a sustainable plan using equipment, work-based learning experiences or recognized industry certifications to increase the state’s competitiveness and postsecondary attainment goals. Grants range in value from $111,000 to $1 million.

Sample recipients include $310,000 for a welding program expansion at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) Pulaski, $1 million for a diesel maintenance program at TCAT Livingston and just under $1 million for the Advanced Technologies Apprenticeship Institute at Cleveland State Community College.

The program prioritized economically distressed and at-risk counties in the RFP process. The 28 funded projects will serve all 15 economically distressed counties and 18 of the 24 at-risk counties.

The Appalachian Regional Commission index of economic status categorizes counties as at-risk or distressed based upon their three-year average unemployment rate, per capita market income and poverty rates. Distressed counties rank among the 10% most economically distressed in the nation while at-risk counties rank between the bottom 10% and 25% of the nation’s counties.

Mark Arend
Editor Emmeritus of Site Selection magazine

Mark Arend

Mark Arend is editor emeritus of Site Selection, and previously served as editor in chief from 2001 to 2023. Prior to joining the editorial staff in 1997, he worked for 10 years in New York City at Wall Street Computer Review, ABA Banking Journal and Global Investment Technology. Mark graduated from the University of Hartford (Conn.) in 1985 and lives near Atlanta, Georgia.


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