Reunification of Tri-Cities region as one MSA hits bump in the road

Reunifying the Johnson City-Kingsport-Bristol region to one Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) status picked up momentum last month. The reasoning for the change is based on the reality that the region is one economic marketplace and needs single MSA status in today’s data-driven world and that the combined commuting patterns would meet the Census Bureau benchmark for merging the Johnson City MSA and Kingsport-Bristol MSAs.

It’s a good idea.

A blog by President of Mitch Cox Realtor, Inc. John Speropulos sparked the conversations. It was read and shared by several thousand influencers. The Business Journal reprinted it. And the Kingsport-Times News published an editorial endorsing reunification. With that done, it was time for a next step would move the conversation along.

Robert Sivinski is the Office of Management and Budget (OBM) point person for MSA delineation questions. He patiently listened to an explanation of why the 10 counties comprising the old Johnson City-Kingsport-Bristol MSA should be reunited. He also explained how the review committee works. OMB plans to release its next delineations update by the end of this year. Then he did something unexpected. He said he would contact the folks at the Census Bureau and ask them to take a look at the most current report on commute patterns data for our area to see if there was a quick path to reunification.

Here’s the result:

“Qualification of two metropolitan statistical areas to merge into a single one is based on commuting ties: commuting between the central counties of the two areas must meet a required minimum to permit merging them.

” More specifically, in order for two areas to merge into a single metro area, the area with the less populous central county or set of central counties needs to have either: (1) at least 25 percent of employed residents of those central counties working in the central county or counties of the other area, or (2) at least 25 percent of the employment in its central county(ies) is filled by workers living in the central county or counties of the other area.  The Johnson City area does not qualify to merge with the Kingsport area because less than 25 percent (14 percent) of the employed residents of Johnson City’s central counties (Carter County, TN and Washington County, TN) work in Kingsport’s central counties (Hawkins County, TN, and Sullivan County, TN) and less than 25 percent (13 percent) of the employment in Johnson City’s central counties is filled by workers living in Kingsport’s central counties.  Therefore, Johnson City and Kingsport are delineated as two separate metro areas.

“In addition, the Office of Management and Budget delineates combined statistical areas (CSAs).  CSAs are larger, looser-knit regions than their component metropolitan or micropolitan statistical areas.  Adjacent metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas form a CSA when specified, commuting-based criteria are met.  The resulting CSA complements but does not supersede the component metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas, which retain separate identities. Under those standards, the Kingsport-Bristol-Bristol, TN-VA Metropolitan Statistical Area and the Johnson City, TN Metropolitan Statistical Area do qualify to combine with each other.”

So much for the idea of combining commuter data as a reunification short-cut. But Census releases a new study every year so as the region continues to grow and the commute patterns evolve there’s a potential path for a future change. And there’s also the long shot that the review committee would look at the combined commuter traffic if the case is pushed. But that would require a change or exception to existing delineations and that could be a bumpy road. Still, it’s one that might be worth traveling.

Reunification would have put the Tri-Cities close to – but not quite on – the top 100 MSAs in the nation list. It would have made things a little easier and using a combined commuter volume was an innovative idea. But here’s OMB’s position of the delineation process: OMB “does not take into account or attempt to anticipate any public or private sector nonstatistical uses that may be made of delineations. These areas are not designed to serve as a general-purpose geographic framework for nonstatistical activities or for use in program funding formulas.”

It’s a disappointing development. But it shouldn’t cap momentum to expand efforts to solidify that the region as one marketplace and should be recognized as just that.



2 replies


  1. Cash home sales strong in Johnson City, Kingsport-Bristol area; distresses sales decline – DON FENLEY @ CORE DATA
  2. The Tri-Cities – one MSA, how – then and now – DON FENLEY @ CORE DATA

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