NEWPORT—While news of Conagra’s closing struck a blow to the industry of Cocke County this week, the Economic Development Commission continues to pursue projects and recruit companies to the area.

Partnership President Lucas Graham provided updates to several projects during the EDC’s Executive Committee meeting Thursday evening.

Graham said that all right-of-way agreements are in place for the Love’s Travel Center and they have a full green light to begin construction.

A pre-construction meeting has been scheduled for January 29 where more details will be shared about the pending start date. Graham said the company had originally set a time of late spring or early summer to begin construction.

Progress continues to be made on the Eternal Beverage project. Graham said some of the final documents are being finished, and that he expects no major issues with the project moving forward.

“If nothing changes then paperwork should be wrapped up tomorrow,” Graham said.

“We’re waiting on two contractors for some edits and once that is done we should be able to coordinate travel times for the company. There are no major changes of hiccups that I am aware of for the project right now. It’s a long process for equipment providers and utility access.”

Graham said he is still waiting for the three party agreements between the county, Industrial Development Board and Shults family to be finished by Baker Donelson law firm.

That is one of the last major hurdles for the industrial park and portion of acreage that will be purchased by the Eternal Beverage company.

Graham shared other good news in the fact that Ole Smokey continues to grow its operation and is currently looking at a lease to purchase option for the former TEVET building.

Sonoco, one of the larger employers in the county, is currently working on their expansion that includes new equipment.

The company will be closed for two weeks while they remodel, which will impact the collection of cardboard at the county’s convenience centers.

County Mayor Crystal Ottinger said there might be a delay in collecting cardboard during the two-week period, but materials will be moved as soon as possible.

“The area where we store our cardboard from the convenience centers is going to be where their new equipment will be placed,” Ottinger said

“For two weeks we won’t have a place to take the cardboard at certain times. There may be a bit of back up and some cardboard may pile up, but as soon as we get the go ahead we will clean it up. This is due to Sonoco’s expansion project, which is good for our community, but it will impact our convenience centers for a short period of time.”

Project Dome is also very active as the EDC and Newport Utilities are working on several analyses and engineering specifications for the project.

Graham said he is currently working to coordinate a trip out west to visit the company’s facility and speak with their executives in hopes of closing the deal with the technology/data storage company.

During the Partnership’s Executive Committee meeting Jennifer Brown, Director of Finance, said the Partnership had one finding in their audit report.

Pugh & Company CPAs noted that the organization lacked adequate segregation of duties, a finding that has been on the report for years.

“This is the same finding we’ve had on our audit report for several years now,” Brown said.

“We have internal control limitations, which is the lack of the ability to segregate financial duties. It’s not recommended that one person handle all of our financials, but we have put into place every safeguard that we can.”

Truitt Ottinger, Partnership board chair, said the only way to get rid of this annual finding is by hiring another person to help manage the organization’s finances.

He said that’s not possible given budget restrictions, and commended Brown and others for their work.

“I want to commend you all for what you do,” Ottinger said. “Every year we have this one finding and it’s the only thing on our audit. It says a lot about what you all are doing, so thank you.”

For the staff reports section of the meeting Tourism Director Linda Lewanski and Chamber Director Lynn Ramsey provided board members with a recap of 2019’s activities.

During the year the tourism department held eight “Celebrating Cosby” education events with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The events reached 1,200 visitors and guests.

A two state media tour was also held where more than 50 writers from around the country visited Cocke County and returned home to do articles about the various activates the area has to offer travelers.

The free media coverage is equivalent to hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising.

Last year Cocke County was also named one of the 7 over 7 across the state.

The area saw a seven percent increase in economic impact from tourism over the year.

Lewanski and the tourism department also participated in several events to build relationships with regional partners. Those included the Middle East Tennessee Tourism Council, National Geographic TRV promotion, Smokies Tourism Day Events, National Tourism Week and LOTS Balloon Festival.

The Chamber of Commerce had some impressive figures for 2019 as they saw 247 member renewals, had 267 total members and had a 91 percent retention rate.

There were also 39 new businesses that joined the chamber.

A total of 78 events were held during the year with the largest being the annual Legislative Breakfast that saw 140 people attend.

The community events included the Newport Street Festival, Summer Concert Series, the Newport Christmas Parade and Shop Local Shop Cocke County campaign.

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