Etowah - Homegrown Tools

Etowah, TN

Updated: 2022

Etowah’s persistence and high standards yielded one of the most scenic rail trips in the nation, an attraction that is spurring downtown retail, restaurant and hospitality development and innovative approaches to industrial recruitment.

Median Household Income2020$36,236
Poverty Rate 202016.9%
Proximity to Urban Center 50 miles to Knoxville, Tenn.
Proximity to Interstate Highway 15 miles
Case Study Time Frame 1998-2006
Municipal Budget FY20174.9 million
Data Source: US Census, American Community Survey
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Etowah is a unique community in the foothills of eastern Tennessee, an awkward but hopeful mix of tradition and progressivism. Century-old railroad infrastructure provides the town with a valuable heritage asset while a modern and thriving industrial park provides well-paid employment opportunities to its residents. Historic downtown architecture and modern amenities stand side-by-side.

Twenty years ago, Etowah faced a severe economic challenge. According to one local official, “we didn’t quite hit the bottom, but we got pretty darn close.” Civic leaders faced a decision. They could bunker-down and accept the widespread plant closings and shuttered storefronts as inevitable. Or they could look to their town’s existing assets and build a new, long-term and sustainable strategy for development. They chose the latter. Today, Etowah has a thriving economy based on three pillars: heritage tourism, downtown development and industrial recruitment and expansion.


What are the lessons learned from this story?


Development strategy should be based on a broad definition of small town assets. In Etowah, the train depot, historic downtown architecture and rail infrastructure were obvious development assets. Some of the less obvious but equally important assets included the adaptability and grittiness of local residents, the town’s interesting history, local nonprofit organizations, the nearby protected parkland and the feisty local leaders. The process of identifying a small town’s assets ought to take a broad view of what a town has to offer and employ creative ways to leverage those assets toward economic, civic, social and environmental gains.


Proactive industrial development as part of a broad-based strategy can spur investment. Etowah demonstrates that proactive industrial development can be part of a broad-based and asset-driven economic development strategy. According to Etowah’s strategic plan, “recruiting technology-based industries that provide a clean industrial environment will avoid the brain- drain, create higher paying opportunities, which will give our children a reason to remain in Etowah and recruit others to relocate in Etowah.” Etowah initiated industrial development on its own terms, and only after embarking on a community-wide exercise to determine its assets and strengths for development. The results are impressive, including hundreds of living-wage jobs in expanding industries.


Small towns need leaders who can think like entrepreneurs and take risks for their communities. As Jack Hammontree of the McMinn County Economic Development Authority said, “For a small community like Etowah to be successful, somebody has to bite the bullet.” Although certainly not the only one, John Solsbee has bitten the bullet for his community. A farmer and self-professed grumpy old man, Solsbee never anticipated being part of Etowah’s government. He was not willing to watch his hometown die, however, so he became the town’s manager in 1997. He was so convinced that creating the industrial park was the right move, he challenged his board to re him if it didn’t pay off. Ten years later, Solsbee still holds his post as Etowah’s town manager.


Scrappiness pays. “In this day and age, when federal and state resources are funneled through multiple levels of organization before they reach individual communities, small towns have to be loud, aggressive, and scrappy,” Durant Tullock said. “We have to fight for our share.” The community hospital is a case in point. The small county-owned hospital, which serves the Etowah and the surrounding rural foothills McMinn County, is struggling. The county board wants to sell it. Etowah is disputing the decision, appealing to state and regional authorities, and being as scrappy as possible. The verdict is still out, but Etowah will not go down without a fight.