The Tri-Cities – one MSA, how – then and now

Thirty some years ago, a group of Tri-Cities businesspeople was looking for a way to present their region in a way that would enhance how their marketplace was described. They were intrigued and motivated by Sales and Marketing Magazine’s Buying Power Index. They had the idea that if the Tri-Cities were designated one economic area it would be good for the region. To make a long story short, they contracted for a commuting pattern study and took the results with their idea to Congressman Jimmy Quillen. Before long, the cities of Kingsport, Johnson City, Bristol, and surrounding smaller towns and communities in NE Tenn. and SW Va. were designated one Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA).

It worked well – especially well for broadcasters. It worked because the single economic area designation allowed them to use government data to establish themselves the Tri-Cities in the top 100 marketplaces in the nation. That meant national advertising buys for local radio and tv stations.

A bit of Googling yielded a document on the Internet item titled Economic Areas (BEA) 1990. It begins, “The Economic Area service areas are based on the Economic Areas delineated by the Regional Economic Analysis Division, Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Department of Commerce Feb. 1995…” Following the bureaucratic citations extended by the Federal Communications Commission, there’s a list. Johnson City-Kingsport-Bristol, TN-VA is ranked 45th just behind Knoxville and in front of Hickory-Morganton.

What did it take to get the Tri-Cities designated one MSA? “The best I can remember it was done with the stroke of a pen,” local broadcast executive Ken Maness said after the recent State of the Chamber breakfast at the Meadowview Resort and Conference Center.

Fast forward to the early 2000s. The Tri-Cities was split into two MSAs during the Census Bureau’s revision of urban area definitions. For whatever reasons local officials didn’t protest. It was a done deal. The Tri-Cities became a  Combined Statistical Area (CSA) with two metropolitan components: the Johnson City MSA and the Kingsport MSA. Neither was big enough to be in one of the top slots.

Fast forward again. Sometime after this year’s holidays, Congressman Phil Roe will set up a conference call between local leaders here and representatives of the Office of Management and Budget and Census Bureau to discuss what it would take to get the two MSAs combined into one.

Here’s how WJHL reporter Jeff Keeling summed up the recent events that promoted Rep. Roe’s involvement.

“A push for the idea bubbled up in 2018. John Speropulos, president of Mitch Cox Realtors, suggested in a blog post that the designation could “set the stage for a better definition of what is obviously one regional marketplace.” While such a designation wouldn’t “change the region’s branding challenges,” Speropulos wrote, “it would more accurately define the region for those who make data-driven business decisions.”

It may be a long shot. Don Fenley, whose “Core Data” website provides economic and demographic reports for the Tri-Cities, reported in June 2018 that the OMB requires at least 25 percent of people living in the “central counties” of one MSA to commute to the adjacent one. At that time, those figures were just 13 percent from Sullivan and Hawkins to Washington and Carter and 14 percent the other way around.

“I did do the deep dive yesterday, and it’s a little more complicated than I thought,” Roe said. Keeling’s full report can be found by CLICKING HERE.

The CoreData at donfenley.com report Keeling cited was posted in June last year after a couple of calls to Robert Sivinski at the Office of Management and Budget. He’s the point person for MSA delineation questions.

I was asking about my research about commuter local commuter patterns as a way to reunify the MSAs and wanted his opinion. He did something unexpected. Instead of offering an opinion, he had the Census Bureau run the numbers.

It might have been a nice try, but as they used to say no cigar. The commutes were not enough, so Kingsport and Johnson City are delineated as two separate metro areas, according to the Census folks. A  full description of the results can be found at Reunification of Tri-Cities region as one MSA hits bump in the road  

By the time local officials hook up on that conference call after the holidays a new American Community Survey will have been released.  Will it show enough change to warrant a second look by OMB? Are they other doors that can be opened?

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.” That means the rules of the game are a little different today than they were when Congressman Quillen fronted the change.

Whatever happens, the irony of the local desire to have the Tri-Cities designated one economic area in the 1980s and today are the same in many ways.

Talk about back to the future.


1 reply

  1. Government can and does control how we are perceived as MSA’s, but government CAN NOT control how we act to grow our economy regardless if we are one or two MSA’s. We have to attract and grow the basics, human capital, anywhere and any how that we can. New human capital spend new money in the Appalachian Highlands Region. Retail sales benefit, government benefits, schools benefits, churches benefit, jobs are created, demand is created and a healthy growing economy is created for all to benefit. What’s wrong with that? The region has talked about it for 30 years too. So what is the plan. Sweep it under the rug again? It’s time for action. Something most don’t seem to understand or care to get out of their comfortable employment zone waiting for that gold watch at retirement. Everyone seems to be trapped in their box wanting to think outside the box of but don’t know how or afraid. Take action. As young entrepreneur Austin Ramsey says, “Crush The Box” then you don’t have a choice and you will make something happen.