Pick Tennessee: Should State Offer Incentives or Requirements to Use In-State Producers?

The state has a website to promote Tennessee products; the idea being support for Tennessee producers promotes jobs and tax revenue. If it's a good idea, then should the state and state institutions put its money where its website is?

It's a philosophical question, I suppose. Purchasing agents and finance people usually prefer to just use the low bidder. But what if the bids are similar? Should state companies and products get the call whenever possible?

Harry Wampler has been a Vol fan for over 50 years. He's 78 years old and his son Chris played defensive tackle for the Vols. You should find his name familiar if you've bought sausage over the last five decades. Wampler sausage is produced by three plants in Loudon County, employing close to 300 people. Wampler also produces Elm Hill Hot Dogs.

After Lay's Packing Co. packed it in, Wampler got the hot dog concession at Neyland Stadium for four years. He says the contract wasn't worth a lot of money to his company, but he loved the prestige and the advertising in the form of an Elm Hill wrapper on 25,000 hot dogs sold in Neyland Stadium on a Saturday.

University of Tennessee contacts with Aramark, a world-wide food service company based in Philadelphia. They operate in 22 countries with annual revenues in excess of $12 billion. It provides food service to prisons, hospitals, businesses and colleges. Aramark handles food service for UT cafeterias as well as concessions at Neyland Stadium. The company in turn contracts with various vendors to provide product. They currently contract for Hebrew National kosher dogs (ConAgra) and Hillshire Farms (Sara Lee) smoked sausages for UT games.

Wampler makes the point that he is the only hot dog producer located in Tennessee. He's in a neighboring county and providing local jobs. He says he has not been able to get on the vendor list to compete for the hot dog business. He says he can produce any kind of hot dog they want.

I'm sure that UT is doing everything by the book and I suspect Wampler and his investors have the resources to eventually work out some kind of solution with UT and Aramark. I don't pretend to know the ins and outs of food-service contracting. But I do wonder about smaller state producers and their ability to get in the door on state contracts.

The larger question is whether the state, through the Legislature, should work out some incentives or even requirements for using Tennessee products. We have long had things like a Veteran's preference, to give the nod to a veteran when it comes to getting a job.

If the bids are the same, or even close (and the tricky part is how close), should Tennessee companies get an advantage? They certainly should get consideration if the price is right.

Or, in times of tight budgets and stretched resources, should city, county, college, and state purchasing have strict criteria and ignore any other factors?

You can argue it either way. But if a Tennessee producer thrives, it means jobs and tax revenue—the justification for the state website providing you a list and links to Tennessee producers.

There are a lot of state contracts that wind up going to state businesses because of protective legislation. You can't get a highway department contract unless you are licensed to build highways and bridges in Tennessee. (You may recall the controversy when a Kentucky company got the bid to repair the I-75 rockslide.)

We are always a little leery of protectionism. We certainly don't want state and local government or even local businesses to get held up by laws forcing them to buy state products or services that are not competitively priced.

But should we be more proactive in helping state producers promote their business and sell their products? I know it's a can of worms.

But it deserves a serious look.

(The state website to promote Tennessee agricultural products is picktnproducts.org, it is provided by the Tennessee Agriculture Department. Products range from Jack Daniels whiskey to Cruze Dairy milk to Elm Hill hot dogs to Pet-tao dog food.)