Almost 20 years ago the Tri-Cities was a single Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). But due to a revised definition of urban areas, it was divided and designated a Combined Statistical Area (CSA) with two metropolitan components. That made the region the data-reporting version of fly-over country. It was probably a mistake back then, but considering today's increasingly data-driven world, it's an even bigger mistake that should be corrected.
Before the division, the Tri-Cities region comprised eight counties in Northeast Tennessee: Carter, Greene, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi, Washington; Two counties in Southwest Virginia: Scott, Washington; and the city of Bristol, Virginia was also included.
Fast forward to 2018. The Tri-Cities is now divided into two MSAs. Johnson City MSA includes Washington County, Carter County and Unicoi County. Kingsport-Bristol TN-VA MSA includes Sullivan County, Hawkins County, Scott County VA, Washington County VA, Bristol VA. Greeneville is its own micropolitan district. Hancock and Johnson counties are orphans.
If you go back and look at criteria used to define MSAs, it's not hard to see why someone sitting hundreds of miles away from here looking at a region defined by geopolitical jurisdictions could have said the Tri-Cities should be divided.
According to Census Bureau, an MSA consists of one or more counties that contain a city of 50,000 or more inhabitants or contain a Census Bureau-defined urbanized area and have a total population of at least 100,000. The primary distinguishing factor between a CSA and an MSA is that the social and economic ties between the MSAs within a CSA are at lower levels than between the counties within an MSA.
It's a lot like reading income tax instructions, isn't it?
Still, those definitions set the argument for why yesteryear's decision should be reversed. The economy has changed, and the way data is collected and reported is nothing like it was 20 years ago. It's time for some change.
And it's not like this is a bottom-up idea. During a recent conference at the Tennessee State Data Center, Census Bureau officials said there are still discussions about whether the Tri-Cities should be a CSA or a single MSA. That's a good start.
So why should the Tri-Cities be one MSA?
The most compelling reason is that it's one economic marketplace and today's economy pays more attention to markets than geopolitical jurisdictions.
Of course, some will point to the populations of Johnson City and Kingsport and argue the region is two MSAs. Reread that definition of an MSA and pay special attention to the latter part: An MSA consists of one of more counties that contain a city of 50,000 or more inhabitants or contain a Census Bureau-defined urbanized area and have a total population of at least 100,000.
Now, look at the most current Census Bureau population estimate for cities. Johnson City and Kingsport have separate local governments and schools, but together they are an urbanized area. Combined they had a population of almost 120,500. A little more than 20 miles from each are the twin Bristols and Elizabethton if you need to push the urban political area population higher.
Also look at the commuter traffic patterns that stitch the Tri-Cities into one urbanized area. Or even better, check out the Census Bureau's data on commute patterns. What you'll find is that almost 29,000 Sullivan County residents commute to a job that isn't in the county or city where they live. A little more than 21,000 Washington County residents do the same every day. Expand that to the seven-county area, and you'll see over 106,000 people live in one of the local political jurisdictions and commute to another for their primary job. Almost all those primary jobs are in the Tri-Cities, and that gives the region high-level economic and social ties.
Changing the Tri-Cities back to one MSA isn't a slippery slope to the consolidated city or county government or schools. It won't impinge on any local government's sovereignty. It simply sets the stage for a better economic definition of what is obviously one regional marketplace. It affords a stronger demographic voice than any one local jurisdiction can present on its own.
Reverting to one MSA won't change the region's branding challenges, but it would more accurately define the region for those who make data-driven business decisions.
The Tri-Cities is one market. It should be recognized as one Metropolitan Statistical Area by the Census Bureau.