Bob Rolfe was sworn in on March 1, 2017 by Governor Bill Haslam to serve as the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. The department is responsible for recruiting business and industry to the state as well as Tennessee’s overall economic growth.
Rolfe brings to the role more than three decades of experience in business and investment banking in Tennessee. Nearly a year into his role at TNECD, The Tennessee Banker caught up with Commissioner Rolfe to learn about his strategy at the department, and the opportunities and challenges the state will face in the coming year.
What do you see as Tennessee’s greatest strength when it comes to economic growth? And what are our biggest challenges?
In regards to economic growth and job creation, one thing we’ve been challenged with over the past few years is automation. This is a trend that’s occurring throughout the nation, not just in Tennessee, so states across the nation are all facing the same challenge. Companies are becoming more efficient, which means fewer jobs, but the good news is that these jobs are higher quality, higher wage jobs. As a state, we aim to attract high quality, family wage jobs and one of our greatest strengths are workforce development programs like Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect. These programs are providing pathways to education for all Tennesseans and show companies that we are proactively equipping our workforce with the skills they need to fill specialized positions. We were the first state in the nation to develop programs like these and many states have since attempted to recreate similar programs using this model.
What are the top 3 priorities for your department in 2018?
As we enter the final year of the Haslam administration, we are going to continue to focus on the priorities our department has concentrated on since 2011. Job recruitment and expansion are always a top priority of our department, but in 2018 we are going to focus higher quality, higher wage jobs. Another big focus of ours will be on the Memphis Regional Megasite. The Megasite is a valuable asset to the state, and we would love to see a company locate on the Megasite before the end of Gov. Haslam’s term. We will also continue our efforts in rural Tennessee by assisting our communities as well as encouraging job creation in these areas of our state. In 2016, 40 percent of our projects were rural and this year that number has increased to 45 percent. Looking back to 2012, that number was only 32 percent, so you can see how this steady increase of projects filtering to our rural regions is helping to spread success throughout our state.
In recent years TNECD has implemented several initiatives to help some of the more rural communities grow economically. What is working well and what areas still need improvement?
Before my time began at TNECD, the department created the Community and Rural Development division in 2015. The team hosted listening sessions throughout the state and developed programs based on community feedback. We continue to develop those programs and make changes each year to in order to accommodate each community’s needs. We’ve also placed a great emphasis on industrial site development, development of tourism infrastructure and downtowns, and moving our counties out of distress, so we are consistently focusing our efforts on helping Tennessee’s rural communities succeed.
Tennessee banks are the economic engine of our state. How can Tennessee banks help TNECD accomplish its goals?
Tennessee banks are great partners to the State of Tennessee. By supporting local economy and assisting businesses throughout the state, Tennessee banks can help our department accomplish its goals.
If you could draw up your crowning accomplishment as TNECD Commissioner, what would it be?
I started with the department in March, so it hasn’t quite been a full calendar year since I began. It was a seamless transition from Commissioner Boyd thanks to the one hundred ECD colleagues I have the privilege of working with on a daily basis. We have another year ahead of us, and we have a robust pipeline full of outstanding projects, so check back with me again in a year and I’ll have a few great accomplishments to share with you that were made possible by the exceptional team at TNECD.