Founder of Forward Air and Landair Fights Northeast Tennessee Brain Drain

Jun 08, 2010, 08:53 ET from Regional Alliance for Economic Development

GREENEVILLE, Tenn., June 8 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- When Scott Niswonger decided to help improve rural schools and reverse the brain drain in Northeast Tennessee, he utilized business principles that helped him found two successful companies -- Forward Air, which went public and then sold in 2005 -- and his  Greeneville, Tenn.-based warehousing and distribution company Landair.

The Niswonger Foundation “doesn’t just throw money at problems, and doesn’t use a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.

“We get involved only if a school system wants our help, and it’s a partnership in which local sustainability is built-in. We also measure results.”

School programs include distance learning courses, which link a master teacher in advanced science and math with several schools at once.

Niswonger is particularly proud of the foundation’s partnership with Mountain City, Tenn., schools. “They needed a vocational program to take advantage of a building boom just over the mountains in and around Boone, N.C.,” he said. “So we hired teachers.”

Students now gain carpentry, electrical, plumbing and interior design skills and each year build --  and sell -- a new house on a 50-acre site purchased by the foundation. With the sale of the last home, the students contributed $70,000 back to the school.  

“Students gain confidence and can get jobs,” he said. “And the program has actually become a profit center for the school.”

In another case, the Niswonger Foundation bolstered the science curriculum in a kindergarten-through-eighth grade school in remote and economically challenged Hancock County. Once threatened with a state takeover because of poor test scores, the school now ranks among the top in the state.

The foundation’s college program is also more than a simple handout – its aim is to develop a cadre of well-educated Northeast Tennesseans who want to lend their talents to building the mostly rural, 12-county region.

So far, 21 students have received a full ride through college and another 31 are enrolled at universities across the United States, and in England and China. Recipients are chosen for their academic prowess and for their civic mindedness.  

There are also practical incentives for students to return to Northeast Tennessee: otherwise the scholarship converts to an interest free loan which students must repay, while, on the positive side, those who come back within seven years of graduation end up with a cost-free education and, in some cases, even the startup capital to create their own businesses.

“After 20 years or so, this is going to be quite a network,” Niswonger said.

He hopes the foundation will spin off ideas that can be used throughout Tennessee and elsewhere.

“That’s my greatest dream,” he said..

Niswonger, who has chaired the Regional Alliance for Economic Development, is a tireless supporter of Northeast Tennessee’s future.  “I tell economic developers we have a low cost of living, a tax structure that’s good for businesses and a workforce that is well trained,” he said.

For information about other economic development, industry clusters, infrastructure and incentives, visit the Regional Alliance website or contact Tom Ferguson, President and CEO, at (423) 323-8107 or at

Media representation: Clark Miller Communications, (865) 414-1908.

SOURCE Regional Alliance for Economic Development