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Dean, Lee agree workforce, education will lead state’s economic future

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Gubernatorial candidates pitched their thoughts on economic development at the annual Tennessee Governor’s Conference Friday before hundreds of economic development professionals from all 95 counties across the state.  

Both candidates agreed that building a skilled workforce in Tennessee will set the foundation for future economic prosperity across the state.

Democrat Karl Dean, former eight-year mayor of Nashville, and Republican Bill Lee, Franklin businessman and generational cattle farmer, fielded questions from Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe about the economic development.

Dean's pitch

Dean highlighted his past experience as mayor, working with both governors Phil Bredesen and Bill Haslam in economic development. Rolfe attributed some of Nashville’s current job-growth climate to Dean, “tracing it back to” his time as mayor.

To have robust economic development, Dean said a state must have “community development.”

“When I look at economic development, I don’t look at it in a vacuum,” Dean said.

The “three pitches we had to hit everyday” as former mayor, Dean explained,  included public education, public safety and economic development.

To attract new companies, Dean said creating quality of life is essential, including safety, health care, great public schools and secondary education as well as workforce development.

Big issue: Workforce development, plus education 

“The big issue for the next 10 years is workforce development,” Dean said. “We need more educated college people and more vocational jobs.

“We have to have the workforce to attract businesses.”

Hypothetically speaking, Rolfe asked the gubernatorial candidates to make a “pitch” to prospective companies, an international company for example, why they should relocate to Tennessee.

To “sell” Tennessee, Dean said he’d highlight the positive business climate and low tax structure.

“It’s fun to watch people’s eyes when we talk about having no income tax,” Dean said.

Dean also signified Tennessee’s temperate weather, access to water, natural resources, opportunities for higher education, its diversity, and the state’s ability to attract “the three T’s,” technology, talent and tolerance (or friendly people in a place everyone wants to live).

“I have loved talking about Tennessee, and it is a fun state to sell,” he said.

Dean also said the state needs to make sure rural counties are not left behind in infrastructure, or business and technology through bringing jobs, education and transportation opportunities to rural areas.

“There is a national trend that people are moving from rural areas. In west Tennessee, 15 out of 21 counties are losing their population,” Dean said.

Dean said he’d keep and enhance Haslam’s education initiatives, including TNPromise and Reconnect Tennessee, or Drive to 55, encouraging high school graduates and adults to obtain higher-level certificates and degrees.

“The answer to almost all of those issues [workforce, economy, quality of life] is education,” Dean added.

Dean emphasized he is dedicated to funding education and protecting that funding.

“We still need good vocational training and technical and apprenticeship programs so residents can have a good job, earn a living and raise a family,” he said.

Lee's pitch

Franklin businessman Lee also focused on building the state’s workforce, coupled with investing in education. During Lee's "pitch" for Tennessee he highlighted those areas and maintaining a business-friendly environment. 

“I'd say we are committed to workforce development. We can’t function without it,” Lee said.

Lee suggested starting as early as kindergarten to enhance workforce education. Lee suggested adding K-12 programs to Haslam’s current education initiatives, which he said he would continue.

Lee also cited his experience as chairman of family-owned Lee Company in Franklin, where he previously served as president, providing HVAC and other homes services. The company was voted as the No. 1 large company to work for last year by The Tennessean. A few years ago, Lee Company expanded its headquarters to Berry Farms where it created over 100 new jobs in Williamson County. Because the company found a lack of skilled workers in surrounding areas, an educational/training leg was started as part of Lee Company. 

Lee has conducted 100 town halls across the state, visited all 95 counties twice and held at least 500 events across the state.  

“Everywhere we go, people want a good job, a good school and a safe neighborhood for their kids,” Lee said.

He praised the current governor's accomplishments.

“Gov. Haslam has done a remarkable job of putting in place a business-friendly environment that has attracted a record-number of jobs,” Lee said.

Lee said education would be his No. 1 investment as well as investments in infrastructure.

“Bridges and roads are arteries of prosperity to me,” Lee added.

During the "pitch," Lee also said he would promise prospective businesses a partnership between business and government.

“Government can be a help or a hurt in how we create jobs and strategies for growth,” he said.

Lee said he’d commit to a “predictable and stable” budget to promote a secure business-friendly environment.

Lee also praised Tennessee’s “work ethic and value system” among its people as an asset for any business relocation.

Committed to rural Tennessee 

When Rolfe later asked Lee what he would do to help rural parts of Tennessee, Lee outlined his campaign initiative “Roadmap for Rural Tennessee”, which is composed of four parts — access to work and skills training, access to technology, combat opioid abuse and strengthen the state’s commitment to faith, community and family.

He also emphasized that broadband is crucial for the prosperity of rural areas.

Lee drove a tractor from Mountain City to Memphis, over 750 miles, to promote vocational training, agricultural education and jobs in rural Tennessee as part of the rural Roadmap. He also met with all 15 mayors of distressed counties before he decided to run.

“I am committed to rural Tennessee,” he said.

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