Monroe County, Forget Factories. Let’s Talk Agriculture/Broadband/Telemedicine/Remote Work for Sustainable Economic Growth

I stumbled across these population projections a few days ago from the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee. Admittedly I didn’t pick through the methodology, but assuming they’re even close to accurate, this is what the difference looks like from 2016-2070. This trend is all to common in rural areas across the country but while the projected decrease of folks of working age may be alarming, it’s also an opportunity to transform our community.


Source Data
If growth patterns stay the same, the population growth distribution across Monroe County will likely follow this course.


Map Source
This map suggests that the third district will get hit hardest by little to now population growth, followed by the first district. The 4th district around Vonore will require more than one seat on the County Commission.

According to this article from the New York Times titled “The Hard Truths of Trying to ‘Save’ the Rural Economy“, rural communities like ours don’t have much hope and we should all pack up and move to the city, and while I agree that we face some serious challenges, they’re not insurmountable. We can reverse these trends in Monroe County, but we have to forget about trying to attract new easy-to-automate jobs and find a way to reinvent ourselves. We can do this by refocusing economic development efforts on our strengths rather than pushing dirt around  for new factories like it’s 1980.

There are certainly more, but our strengths as I see them are:

  • Wilderness
  • Water
  • I-75/I-40/Hwy 11/Hwy 411
  • Agriculture
  • Healthcare/Healthcare workers
  • Popular retirement destination
  • Tourism
  • Proximity to Knoxville/Airport

With self-driving cars right around the corner and popular applications like Waze, Uber and Lyft, why not apply for smart city grant funding to develop “Park and Ride” lots along our Interstate exits and 411 to facilitate ride-sharing for those of us with a daily commute to Knoxville, Chattanooga or elsewhere? The AVERAGE commute time for Monroe County residents is 28 minutes.

Speaking of smart city initiatives, why not apply for grant funding to build Electric Vehicle Charging Stations in our downtown areas?

Now that the Farm Bill has passed the House and Senate and likely to receive President Trump’s signature, Industrial Hemp will be legal to produce in all 50 states. Due to the current status of its cousin and the clandestine methods in which it was/is grown, hemp/marijuana production is one of, if not the most automated, data driven, profitable agricultural industries in the world. Farms need broadband to take advantage of these technologies. As demand for dairy declines, our farmers need an alternative crop. Demand for hemp derived CBD oil has exploded. CBD oil is produced from the flower which means it only comes from female plants.

This means that hemp for CBD oil can’t be grown from seed, it has to be grown from clones of a mother plant. I’d be hard pressed to believe that we don’t have a few cultivation experts in Monroe County, but we need a knowledge transfer. We have a once proud, now condemned facility in Sweetwater that sits on plenty of acreage with close proximity to I-75 that could serve as an Industrial Hemp Research facility for the area, producing clones from new strains that are adapted to our region, and providing training and a storefront for local producers. Obviously I’m referring to the old TMI building.

With unemployment at an all time low and a projected decrease in people of working age, any new factory will fill positions by taking employees from other industries in the region. Our already existing skills gap means that we would hurting local industries that have already invested heavily in Monroe County by incentivizing new industries with tax breaks. Why not use those dollars to give property tax breaks to people with the needed skills to relocate their families to Monroe County or to encourage our unskilled work force to obtain the needed skill sets.

While our natural beauty might be one of our greatest resources, it shares that spot with the quality of our healthcare providers and healthcare workers.Our southern hospitality, reverence to our Creator, and compassion for our neighbors shines through in those that take up this calling.

For our aging population and relocating retirees, surely aging in place would be high on the list of priorities but while our cities might have adequate broadband to support telemedicine/telehealth, our MORE attractive rural areas do not, which means that these beautiful areas will be looked over by many looking to relocate.

The rapid acceleration of “cord cutting” has prompted AT&T to announce that they are not launching any more DirecTV satellites. Both satellite TV providers, AT&T/DirecTV and Dish are trying to reinvent themselves as over-the-top TV service providers which means that their services will only work over sufficiently fast broadband networks.

How attractive will our rural areas be when folks don’t even have an option for cable/satellite television service?

Also, with the mix of internet service providers that we do have, and the fact that we’re not anywhere close to an Internet Exchange Point, the internet traffic routing to get from a TDS customer in Vonore to Sweetwater Hospital or a Doctor’s Office in Madisonville on a Comcast connection will likely go all the way to Chicago and back, resulting in poor performance for advanced telemedicine applications.

This is a special on the future of work and how one town in Kentucky is shifting from coal to health careboth retaining and retraining young workers with no future in the coal mines. While not a coal county, Monroe County could lead a similar effort in East Tennessee by offering remote work classes and certifications similar to this program in Utah through Hiwassee College.

FLEC and SUB could resolve these connectivity issues by providing broadband and interconnecting with each other as well as local health care providers. OUR high speed interconnected broadband networks could also be a popular draw for younger remote workers and consultants that desire a rural lifestyle but require high speed, symmetrical connectivity. And again, with the advancements in roboticsaugmented reality  and artificial intelligence becoming ACTUAL reality, having this type of connectivity in our homesfactories and farmswill be crucial to remaining competitive with neighboring communities.


It’s easy to see why communities in North East Tennessee have chosen to invest heavily in fiber optic broadband. With dwindling populations, they’ve seen the writing on the wall. Just as Ebeneezer Scrooge learned from the Ghost of Christmas Future, a grim outlook doesn’t have to become reality. With a will and a change in course it can be altered.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas! Spend every moment with your loved ones like it may be your last. None of us are guaranteed a tomorrow.

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