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Vegas trip hits development jackpot

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Mayors from Wilson County attending the national retail convention - RECon - in Las Vegas last week are, from left, Lebanon's Philip Craighead, County Mayor Randall Hutto and Watertown's Mike Jennings. The Wilson booth was draped in a crimson cloth with t

All the cities in Wilson County - as well as the county itself - send officials to Las Vegas each year in May, but not to gamble.

This year, mayors Randall Hutto (Wilson County), Philip Craighead (Lebanon) and Mike Jennings (Watertown), as well as City Manager Kenny Martin (Mt. Juliet), made the trip to Vegas to attend a conference to promote their cities and the county among businesses looking for a place to locate.

After arriving in Vegas, Lebanon Economic Development Director Helene Cash said they basically struck it rich without gambling.

"We did an excellent job of making contacts," she said, adding that she has scheduled six of those contacts to be interviewed "in the near future," with the first one due on Tuesday this week.

Also attending the conference were Dennis Buchanan, the City of Mt. Juliet's community relations director, and Tammy Stokes, assistant director of the Wilson County Joint Economic and Community Development Board (JECDB).

The national retail convention, called RECon, is the biggest gathering of its kind in the world, according to Craighead. Sponsored by the International Council of Shopping Centers, "it's a great place to promote our community to developers and businesses," the Lebanon mayor said.

There was even a direct Tennessee connection - the keynote speaker was Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos, the quarterback who led the UT Volunteers to an SEC championship back in '97.

But in football terms, the conference was just the kick-off to score a number of economic development touchdowns in the near future, Craighead indicated.

'Businesses already eyeing sites'
For instance, the mayor said that in other years, he has spoken to a number of businesses who found Lebanon and Wilson County interesting, but said they had no potential franchisees lined up.

"This time, the businesses had franchisees ready to go," he said. "They were asking about locations on this street corner or that street corner. Our local economy is definitely rebounding."

Cash agreed, "Our economy is definitely in a growth mode."

Craighead also pointed out that Cash's previous commercial recruiting experience makes her very good at this type of negotiation. "Understanding the needs of business is Helene's talent," he said.

Both of them talked about the excitement in finding companies that are already interested in Lebanon. "They had already looked at Lebanon and were talking about certain intersections," Craighead said.

"Companies are all about the quality of life," Cash explained. "They see the community holistically, not just the demographics. They read the local newspapers, websites and check out the TV and radio stations. They investigate us."

'A long-term process'
Cash added that Lebanon needs to target the right businesses. "We want businesses that are going to be involved in the community and growing with it," she said. "I'm glad when they know what's already here."

She also pointed out that site selection is a long-term process for most businesses, so it also makes sense to start talking now to businesses that won't be interested in the community until it is a little bigger.

"We need to start knocking now even if they don't build with less than 100,000 population," Cash said. "And some come in and buy property while we are smaller, so they can be ready when we are big enough."

"It's like getting them to watch us grow up, so when we get 'college age,' they will be ready to come visit," Craighead added. "We need to keep in contact. That's what this convention is all about."

'JECDB a great partner'
Both Cash and Craighead also are very positive about how valuable the JECDB is to the community. "It is incredible," Cash said. "They partner with us as well as the other cities and the county."

The mayor added that the JECDB has been working for Wilson County for a long time.

"A lot of what is in Lebanon wouldn't be here if not for JECDB," he said. "Their partnership is key to all our success. We have a very deep bench."

And partnerships are what RECon is all about, too. "Government and private partnerships are great," Craighead said, "especially when there's a good return for your dollar."

Writer Connie Esh can be contacted at

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economic development, Los Vegas, Wilson County
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