If perception is indeed reality, the Loudon County Economic Development Agency appears to have a problem.
Loudon City Council voted Monday in a split decision to put the EDA on notice that the city will be reviewing its longtime agreement with the organization. Councilman Tim Brewster led the charge after first raising concerns about the EDA during a council workshop a week earlier. Brewster argues the EDA, which is tasked chiefly with economic development in Loudon County, isn’t working hard enough for Loudon.
Councilwoman Tammi Bivens, who abstained during the vote, said council should consider if there is work performed behind the scenes by the EDA that might go unnoticed. Bivens might have a point, yet the blame for failing to show that work rests firmly on the shoulders of the EDA board and its executive director, Jack Qualls.
In July, the News-Herald received information from Blair Patterson, administrative liaison for the EDA, that the organization would no longer be holding regular board meetings. She asked that the News-Herald remove an EDA meeting notice from the community calendar published in the weekly print edition and on the newspaper’s website at www.news-herald.net. Neither Patterson nor Qualls returned emails asking why the regular meetings were being canceled. And we’ve not been made aware of any meetings scheduled since the cancellation of regular meetings in July.
Open, transparent communication has been a shortcoming of the EDA under Qualls. When he took the position, the News-Herald tried on several occasions to write a profile on the new director and establish a routine line of communication like existed under previous leadership. Multiple requests spanning several weeks went ignored. When Oak Ridge-based Protomet moved into the former Maremont building in Loudon under code name Project Q, Qualls did not return requests for comment and would not immediately confirm Protomet was Project Q — even after Protomet’s founder and president confirmed both facts to the News-Herald and multiple other regional media outlets in a public press conference.
Loudon Mayor Jeff Harris told council that the issues raised regarding the EDA could be solved with regular updates, and Harris said Qualls agreed to provide such information. But it should never take a public complaint from an elected official to spur the EDA to provide regular updates to one of the cities it represents.
Under its current iteration, the EDA operates mostly in the shadows. There is a board of directors but no indication to the public of if, when or where they hold meetings.
Understand, we are in no way asking Qualls to offer information to the public that could damage a potential business agreement, but the public should not be kept in the dark about what the EDA is doing on a day-to-day basis.
The easiest way to start showing the public, and local officials, that the EDA is doings its best for Loudon County, Lenoir City and Loudon would be to return to regular, public meetings of the board of directors.