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Ovation 2012: Excellence in Business/Governmental Leadership

Liz Engel Clark
Friday, Jul 6, 2012

Honoring business leaders, managers and elected/appointed officials for their foresight, management skills and success and for promoting a strong business and economic environment in the Upper Cumberland.

Jim Shipley
Putnam County, Cookeville city manager

City government is – in many ways – like an everyday business. Both must be financially sound – particularly during the toughest economic times – and both need top-notch team members. And when it comes to Cookeville city government, Jim Shipley has done both things well in his role as the city’s CEO.

Shipley, who has served as city manager since 1995, works mostly behind the scenes, running the government’s day-to-day, but he’s also had a hand in Cookeville’s status as a business friendly locale, from quality-of-life improvements like Dogwood Park, to the Highlands Business Park nearing completion.

An accountant by trade, a Cookeville native and an Army veteran, Shipley worked for the Tennessee Comptroller’s office for seven years post graduation in 1974. He was in Roane County as the budget/finance director when a similar post came open here. He was finance director for 12 years before taking the city’s top spot.

He has witnessed two so-called surprises during his tenure – the approval of liquor-by-the-drink in 1992, one of the biggest contributors to Cookeville’s growth, particularly in restaurants, he says, as well as the approval of package liquor stores in town more recently.

As for the future, he’s looking to stay on board at least through 2014, the end of the term for the current city council, when he’ll be 65. But retirement still makes him a little apprehensive.

“I still really enjoy it,” Shipley said. “When I first took this job, it was on an interim basis, and I did not intend to seek it permanently. But once you get into the position of city manager, you find out just how much you like it. (From the beginning) they had me hooked.”

John Dennis
Jackson County, Gainesboro-Jackson County Chamber of Commerce director

After spending nearly 34 years in the manufacturing industry, John Dennis needed a change. So he started his own management consulting business in 2009. Little did he know where that pathway would lead – from a chamber of commerce member in 2010, to its president then executive director in just two short years.

And since then, the chamber – and correspondingly, the Gainesboro and Jackson County community – has come a long way. The chamber has nearly doubled its membership from 2010 – there’s more than 130 members - it opened its own physical office space on the downtown square in 2011 and became the fourth member of the Highlands Initiative, a regional economic development program, earlier this year. It wasn’t that long ago when they didn’t have a meeting place to call their own, when all chamber calls were directed to city hall, and there was no staff in place whatsoever.

It’s sure been some good forward momentum.

“It’s been a perfect storm in a good sense, in that we’ve just had a lot of things come together to give us opportunities that we didn’t have in the past,” Dennis said. “We had a huge improvement in the cooperation of our leadership, just several organizations that work really closely together. We all have the same goal in mind, and we share a lot of information. It’s not always been that way for Jackson County.”

He credits the chamber’s membership for the changing of the guard.

“All of the success as far as the chamber is concerned, whatever we contributed to the good things that are happening in Jackson County, the credit goes to the membership,” he said. “They’re all volunteers and they give a lot of their time and effort and expertise into doing all the things we do.”

Jimmy Allen
Upper Cumberland, USDA Rural Business Services loan specialist

Jimmy Allen has spent a lot of years getting to know business owners and workers in the 14-county Upper Cumberland region, 28 to be exact. As a USDA loan specialist for the Rural Business Services program, he helps administer loans and grants that ultimately help foster and create jobs.

Allen has even led the state in one grant program in particular, the Rural Energy for America Program, which helps businesses install solar or make other make energy-related improvements. Twenty-six applications were received at the Cookeville area office last year. He attributes that to the agency’s outreach efforts, and that’s no surprise. He’s got a boots-on-the-ground mentality when it comes his work with lenders, co-ops, chambers of commerce, and cities and counties.

“We visit all the chambers, industrial development boards, we explain our programs, check to see what projects they’re doing to see if there’s funding available through USDA,” Allen said. “This year we granted $30,000 to Cannon County to help them construct a farmer’s market. The same with White County.”

Jerry Jolley, area director for the Cookeville area USDA office and Allen’s boss, said Allen is a “great hands-on, take charge kind of guy” that’s shown the willingness to adjust to an ever-changing governmental agency.

“He has a natural ability to meet people and make them feel comfortable,” Jolley said about Allen. “And you’ve got to be that way to be successful in that position. I would put him up against anybody as far as his talent in that area.”

Dr. Bob Bell
Putnam County, outgoing TTU president

It’s definitely an impressive list of accomplishments. During Tennessee Tech President Bob Bell’s tenure, the Cookeville university has realized 11 straight years of student enrollment growth; two new residence halls have been constructed on campus; and funding was secured for the construction of a state-of-the-art nursing school as well as the Millard Oakley STEM Center, a hub for the teaching of science, technology, engineering and math. And that’s just the short list. Certainly, there’s going to be some big shoes to fill.

Bell, TTU’s president for 12 years and a member of the university community for 36, formally announced his retirement last summer, and just officially stepped away from the school July 1. An Ovation Award is just one of many accolades bestowed upon him in his final year, but perhaps a recent resolution approved by the Tennessee Senate best summarizes his nomination – and the UCBJ community’s best wishes.

“Throughout his estimable career at Tennessee Tech, President Bell has demonstrated the utmost professionalism, ability and integrity, winning the unbridled respect and admiration of his colleagues, staff, and students alike,” the resolution reads. “We honor and thank Dr. Bell for his many years of service, salute his professional expertise and personal excellence, and extend to him our heartfelt wishes for a happy and fulfilling retirement and every continued success in his future endeavors.”

The Clay Gas Utility District Board
Clay County, gas utility

It’s a utility that’s led a troubled past but one that seems to be inching its way to a happy ending – at least happier than where it started.

The Clay Gas Utility District was founded in 1997, and the installation of its natural gas distribution system quickly followed, funded with $3.2 million worth of utility construction bonds issued in 1998. The pre-bond prospectus promised an immediate 600 customers – but that never happened and several problems ensued, including the conviction of its former project manager, who allegedly embezzled approximately $200,000.

The year 2007, however, started the clean up process. That was the year Ray Norris, also the executive director of the Clay County Chamber of Commerce, took over as president of the utility’s board. Two others with business-heavy backgrounds, Diane Donaldson and Richard Accurso, joined later. And John Klus, a former board member and a retired Ford Motor Company engineer, remains involved today.

The trio, earlier this year, led a buyout offer to bold holders that garnered 75 percent participation. The utility was able to retire nearly $4 million worth of debt – a big stepping point considering the group was more than 10 years behind in payments. Non-paying users of the utility have also been disconnected.

While things have come a long way, Norris more than readily admits there’s still a lot of work to do. The board’s current 220 customers aren’t enough to make any future bond payments. And capital is needed to extend the gas lines in order to garner more business. For example, there’s about 20 chicken farmers that currently have no access, Norris said. One chicken farm would equal about 10 residential customers.

He refuses to consider bankruptcy, even though it might have been the easier path to take.

“We’re modestly cash positive now,” Norris said, “and I do think there will be a day when Clay Gas Utility will have no debt. Hopefully it will have a very good ending compared to where we started.”

Downtown Crossville Inc.
Cumberland County, economic initiative

What started as a simple effort to spruce up downtown instead uncovered an underground issue in Crossville that one non-profit organization is working tirelessly today to fix.

The city’s aging infrastructure is inhibiting downtown’s progress: water pipes are 90 years old, water pressure is half of what it should be and there’s literally no storm drainage system, said Tonya Hinch, director of economic restructuring for Downtown Crossville Inc. So the group set out to fix that. Certainly the trees, benches and light poles could wait.

“We don’t have the water pressure on Main Street to support a restaurant-quality dishwasher, so it’s hard for us to recruit,” she said. “There’s just a huge opportunity here.”

So far, the group’s been working five-years running. The infrastructure improvements carry an estimated $9 million price tag, but Downtown Crossville Inc. has helped secure $4.5 million worth of grants to help pare that down – and they may get to spend some of that money real soon.

Hinch said she’s hoping the Crossville city council will vote this winter to move forward with construction, which means ground could break in the spring. The project would take 18-24 months to complete, and one of the biggest selling points, Main Street will “never, ever” close in the process, she said.

“There’s just a huge opportunity to take downtown to the next level, but we’re not going to take that big step forward until there’s that infrastructure,” Hinch said. “For a long time, people thought we were just going to plant trees, and add park benches and new light poles, and at the beginning that’s all we were going to do. But it became a much bigger project.”

She credited Downtown Crossville’s eight-member board, “who have worked tirelessly,” and a cadre of roughly 200 volunteers who help with everything DCI’s involved in: from downtown walking tours, free live concerts and the farmer’s market.

“Everything we’ve done is an effort to generate sales tax revenue, and our downtown can be a real (stopping) point,” she said. “If we do this right, it will have a positive economic impact, it would have a quality-of-life impact on everybody who lives here, and we would get to preserve the history of our little community. It’s a win-win.”

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