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Vision Quest

by Joe Tarr

Regional organization launches a community-driven "visioning" process

The planning process that brought the aquarium to Chattanooga will get a chance here, as Nine Counties. One Vision kicks off next year.

The idea behind the project is to gather input from residents throughout the new nine-county 865 area code—Anderson, Blount, Grainger, Jefferson, Knox, Loudon, Roane, Sevier, and Union counties—and help prioritize what people want their region to be. The process begins Feb. 1 through March 2 with 20 public brainstorming sessions.

"It's a blank slate. They'll talk about whatever they're interested in. They just generate ideas of what they'd like this region to be," says Lynne Fugate, executive director.

Later in the year, there'll be more meetings for residents to prioritize goals and set strategies—from that, committees of volunteers will be formed to tackle these goals, soliciting public and private help where necessary. Nine Counties. One Vision is scheduled to end Dec. 31, 2004.

But will the nine counties be able to come to any consensus on what projects the region should pursue?

"We probably have more in common than we think we do. There will be things and issues true in all the counties and that's what people will want us to work on," she says. "What we're doing is not to compete with or tell any municipality what to do—it's to think regionally."

A key inspiration behind the process is consultant Gianni Longo, an architect who has spearheaded strategic planning efforts around the country for the past 20 years. In the early '80s, Longo started Chattanooga's visioning process, which has been credited with stimulating $1 billion in development there.

"[Longo's] theory was the old-style leadership didn't work any more. It used to be a few folks who had the money and power could make plans for a city," says J. Laurens Tullock, of the Cornerstone Foundation of Knoxville. "But in a growing age of information takes everybody from grass roots activists to the folks who can call up the governor, or it won't work."

Many people involved in Nine Counties are uncertain how it got started. "The idea really percolated from a lot of different sources," Tullock says.

Several groups—including inner city, rural grass roots, leadership groups, and charitable foundations—were all interested in Longo's process. "I just called him out of the blue and said is there a way to get you down here," Tullock says. Since then, the idea snowballed—with a core group forming Nine Counties as a non-profit.