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Journeys of Discovery: From rust belt to renaissance in Kingsport, Tennessee

Join correspondent Tom Wilmer reporting from Kingsport, Tennessee—in the shadows of the Great Smokey Mountains—for an exploration of the town’s vibrant economy and fascinating educational opportunities for the upcoming generation.

Back in the latter 1990s, manufacturing jobs were disappearing at a frightening rate across America’s Rust Belt. Kingsport, Tennessee was a poster child for the changes, with staggering job losses and industrial manufacturing plant-closures.

To turn the tide on a shrinking workforce and dropping educational levels, the city established an innovative program to reverse the crisis. Job training enterprises were started, along with the advent of an "Educate and Grow" program that included two years of free college education. The initiative was so successful, the State of Tennessee modeled its two-years-of-free-college program, the Tennessee Promise, on Kingsport’s model. The Educate and Grow Initiative was also the recipient of Harvard University’s prestigious John F. Kennedy School of Government 2009 "Innovations in American Government Award." 

In this episode, Wilmer meets:

  • Miles Burdine, president and CEO of the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, who talks about how the Educate & Grow program transformed the economic vitality of the region.
  • Brenda Barnicki, who left her job as a vice president of a Fortune 500 company to follow her heart and start Bellafina Chocolates, with 100 percent of the profits going to non-profits. Central to Barnicki’s business model is not only providing work opportunities, but also simultaneously teaching job training and life skills for at-risk Kingsport women.
  • Amy Margaret McColl, marketing manager with Visit Kingsport, who shares inside tips about distinctive things to do and see in town, including the largest walkable downtown antique district in the entire Southeast. She also hints at the passionate pride and engagement of locals in community affairs that makes Kingsport such a welcoming town for visitors.
  • Reggie Martin, who along with a cadre of more than 300 volunteers, came together to restore a classic 1950s amusement park carousel. Central to the restoration process was the contingent of local artists who crafted 32 new animals and two chariots. More than 800 hours was dedicated to carve each animal.
  • Dr. Brenda White Wright, who with a master’s degree in storytelling teaches life lessons to Kingsport’s elementary school children as well as university students.

You are invited to subscribe to the Lowell Thomas Award-winning travel show podcast, Journeys of Discovery with Tom Wilmer, featured on the NPR Podcast Directory, Apple Podcast, the NPR One App & Twitter: TomCWilmer. Instagram: Thomas.Wilmer. Member of the National Press Club in Washington D.C.

Tom Wilmer produces on-air content for Issues & Ideas airing over KCBX and is producer and host of the six-time Lowell Thomas award-winning NPR podcast Journeys of Discovery with Tom Wilmer. Recorded live on-location across America and around the world, the podcasts feature the arts, culture, music, nature, history, science, wine & spirits, brewpubs, and the culinary arts--everything from baseball to exploring South Pacific atolls to interviewing the real Santa Claus in the Arctic.
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