Cannon County's Three-Star program is taking a step back - but only so that it can step forward.
The state Three-Star program helps rural and urban Tennessee communities achieve excellence in community development by emphasizing foundational steps and targeting community strengths to improve quality of life and grow jobs. The intent of the program is to provide a strategic action plan for counties as a whole to move forward.
Cliff Swoape, who has been the chairman of the Three-Star program for Cannon County since it began a few years ago, says it was the plan at the beginning to put the economic development program on hold at some point to refocus its efforts.
"When we first started Three-Star a few years ago, we did it in a very short timeframe and basically we all did it with the understanding that we'd go back and revisit everything and do it the way it should be really done," Swoape said. "We knew that in putting it together in a short time frame we were cutting some corners and so everybody that was at the table agreed that we were going to go back at some time in the future and do it with very thorough planning from the get go and so we completed the first Three-Star in three months, which I think is record time."
Obtaining grants to improve water lines was one of the primary motivators to get Cannon County to do the Three-Star in the first place, Swoape said.
"The (Cannon County) chamber had looked at it for years as a great template for community development and economic development but that (water line grants) was the catalyst that got us to the table and so we put it together with a handful of volunteers. Over the past few years we have been able to maintain it but with the economy getting like it is and everything getting shaky as far as folks being able to donate a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of effort, we decided this was a perfect time for us to backup and reevaluate everything.
Swoape said a new direction for Cannon County's Three-Star program will be developed while the local program takes a year's hiatus.
"Taking a step back for one thing means that this year the (Three-Star) signs are actually going to come down." Swoape said. "We're not going to certify this year in the Three-Star program. That basically keeps us from doing a year's worth of busy work to get the Three-Star certification renewed and lets us instead focus on backing up and redoing the entire strategic plan."
Part of the new plan will include increased emphasis on education, and Cannon County's improved graduation rate helps the cause.
"After the governor's reelection, he was stressing education as a component of his next four years and in that stressing he basically took and made education a primary component of Three-Star and rightfully so," Swoape said. You know if you're going to say that's one of the biggest economic development tools that you've got then you've got to put your money where your mouth is and so ECD wove education into the Three-Star program. Graduation rate was one of the things that got tied to it. As such that year we knew Cannon County backed up one level at that point because of graduation rate. We've since even surpassed that. They've worked really hard at school system; got the graduation rate up and so we're actually back to where we meet those qualifications for the state.
"They've done fantastic job," Swoape continued. "One of the things that came out of that, the state looking at everything and of Cannon County's dramatic improvement in their graduation rates was Cannon County was invited to graduation summit, one of ten counties. The school system sent several delegates down there and I went on behalf of the chamber and we sat down with the folks from those 10 counties across the state and some of the state education department folks and various and sundry sponsors of that particular program and the effort was to improve the graduation rate in those 10 counties and one of the things that was put into place was a grant opportunity to fund a graduation summit in the local counties and we talked with the school representatives during that meeting and it was decided amongst the lot of us that meshed very well with the idea of an economic and community development summit that the chamber had been throwing around for a year or two of trying to get all the big players, or all of the players period, not just the big players but all of the players to the table.
"The banking industry. The business in the community. The education folks. The elected officials. Put everybody together and come up with that five year strategic plan that's part of the Three-Star components, primary ingredient of the Three-Star, come up with that overall economic and community development plan and make graduation rate a part of that.
Swoape said it is important for the future of Cannon County, and especially its younger citizens, to have a strong Three-Star program in which everybody - government, businesses, schools, citizens - participate.
"Without a well educated work force, we're going to get left behind and so we want to find a way to educate folks, give them the employment they need to keep them here and so when all of those factors combined it just seemed like the perfect timing for us to take a step back and sit down and bring this whole thing back to a head. Look at it all and say let's start from ground zero. Let's do a strategic planning session and let's get out here and really bring everybody to the table because obviously it was a small group of us, I mean it was a hard working group but it was a small group of us that were keeping the Three-Star going. It really truly needs to be a community wide effort and so that's what we're doing. Our goal is to get as many folks as possible to the table to move Cannon County forward from an economic and community development standpoint."
There are five required components of the Three-Star program, Swoape said.
"The adult leadership class is definitely one of those. Then there are basically tiers from that point on. Benchmarks are what they call them. There is a level one, a level two and a level three benchmark. To obtain each new benchmark, the county to be certified first and foremost you have to reach benchmark one and then after that there are additional components that go in place to reach the next benchmark and then the next and so you don't have to complete everything that's in it. It's designed basically to guide you to the process of the community development. It's designed so that you can build upon your success and that's the main reason that we're taking this step backwards is to take two steps forward.
"We're wanting to sit down and put together a plan that is truly comprehensive and meets all of the needs and concerns of the county and brings basically to leverage the things that we do have going for us in the county. Tourism is one of them. Arts and crafts are one of our biggest asset in this county, can't underestimate, can't overstate how valuable that is to the economy in this area from the local manufacturer's standpoint, the local artisans standpoint all the way up to the school buses coming in for the art center. The plays on the weekend. It's a fantastic asset to our community. It's one of the jewels that we want to build upon in this program. The town square and the mom and pop business atmosphere in Cannon County.
"We often bemoan the fact that we don't have a lot of the big chain stores that other places have but a lemon to lemonade kind of thing, that's the things that draws a lot of people to this area. That's the thing that keeps a lot of people in this area. To me that's what Cannon County's focus needs to be. I've lived here for the last 19 years. Can't imagine right now living anywhere else. It's a great place. I fell in love with it a long time ago and it's part of that that is the reason. It still feels like a community where as you get a place that's strip mall after strip mall after strip mall and there's no sense of community," Swoape said.
Swoape said that while it is likely that Cannon County will experience growth over the coming years and decades, it is important there be a plan in place to manage any expansion.
"The thing about Cannon County when you talk to local residents, the thing you hear from them the most after all these years with the chamber is we want to keep the flavor of Cannon County," he said. "We want to keep it Cannon County. We don't want it to become another Rutherford County or anybody else. We want it to be unique. We want it to be Cannon County. That's the thing that keeps the locals here and that's the thing that attracts all the new folks that have moved into the county in the last 20 years or so.
"The population, you look at the demographics in Cannon County and how the population has changed over the years and it's just astounding to see the jump in population recently. Change is coming. I mean it's inevitable and you can either be overrun by it and overtaken by it or you can manage it towards the ends that you want to see and that's what the Three-Star program hopes to do and that's what our group of folks in Cannon County that have been working on this hope to do and the chamber hopes to do is to help provide what the people of this county need in the way they want it provided and to manage that change, to manage the growth and to keep Cannon County the place that folks like to call home. Support those mom and pops."
To reach its full potential as a Three-Star community, Swoape said the county will need to hired a full time economic development director at some point.
"In my opinion, any time that you can get folks whose job it is to improve the county, to improve the economic and community development structure, that's a good thing. You've got some of those folks right now. Our elected officials, each and every one of them are working to that end. (County Executive) Mike Gannon for all intense and purposes is a full time economic and community development person," Swoape said.
"What we want to do is put the plan in place that says we're shooting for level three. That's where we want to be. We know we're not there yet. Right now we know that the budget probably would not support hiring a full time economic and community development coordinator right now. So what we want to do is put a five-year strategic plan in place that moves us in that direction. That gets us moving toward being able to hire that person. There are counties around that have got them and they do a fantastic job. Cannon County is doing a fantastic job with the pieces they've got in place. What Three-Star hopes to accomplish is take the pieces we do have in place, build upon them and move in directions we want to go. I don't think you'd find any official that would argue that having a full time economic and community development person isn't a good idea. It is a good idea. I think it is getting us to that point and that's what the Three-Star hopes to accomplish is to get us to that point.
The interesting part about it is that again Three-Star is basically a check off list you know. It's not a magic wand that's going to make you, you know, be a certain way. What it is is sign posts to point you in the right direction and so if we follow those sign posts in the Three-Star program and we got to level three, basically where you would be based on the check points that are in there, you'd have a full time economic and community development person. You'd have a paid leadership development person. You would have committees on housing. You would have a county wide transportation plan or you would have a transportation plan for every city in each one of those counties and the county separately. There are several components. Those are the ones I can remember off the top of my head but there are several things that you would have that we don't have now. We've got some of those issues. You'd have codes. For some people that's a bad word. You'd have zoning. For some people that's a bad word. But those are things that the state has said those things need to be in place to reach this level to call yourself a level three community, a tier three community you need to have those things in place. Cannon County would look a little different than it does now if we were a level three community because we'd have those different components in place. The thing that you've got to do is as you're putting those components in place make sure that they're moving you in the direction that you want to go."