Gaining insights from Chattanooga

April 27, 2022

38 business and community leaders from across Buncombe + 68 hours in Chattanooga + 6 presentations from a dozen Chattanoogans = Valuable relationships and ideas.

At the Asheville Chamber, we say together, we are more. Our recent Intercity Visit to Chattanooga reinforced that idea. Intercity Visits take a delegation from Asheville to another community to gather ideas and best practices as we explore key issues in our own community. Intercity Visits are also great opportunities to build connections among the delegation.

Partnerships are the expectation

From addressing long-term community issues to responding to immediate needs, collaboration is expected in Chattanooga. Again and again, we saw the strength of public-private partnerships on display. As one Intercity participant noted, “They appear to have worked through ‘turf wars’ that make efforts more difficult and complicated.”

One example, Chattanooga 2.0 partners are working to ensure all children and youth are equipped with the resources and supports needed to reach their full potential, cradle to career, through collaboration, measurement, and alignment of policy and practice. In 2018, Hamilton County Schools launched the Future Ready Institutes offering a unique career-themed education through a small learning community model that are aligned with workforce development needs. The program consists of 28 career academies in 13 high schools, each supported by local businesses through internships, mentoring, job shadowing, providing materials/equipment and much more. Students can graduate high school with hands-on experience and in many cases with certifications (such as CNA, pilot’s license or computer repair) to go directly into the workforce.

Another example, EPB (Chattanooga’s community-owned electric utility), the Enterprise Center, the school system and others came together early in the pandemic to mobilize no-cost, high-speed internet to low income families. Within one month of first conversations, $8.3 million in funding was secured for remaining infrastructure and upfront costs, and families were being connected two months later. Additional funding and commitments are in place to continue the program for at least ten years for up to 18,000 families. Families with need are identified by the school system and provided with free high-speed internet access to their home. Benefits of the program extend beyond education. There is potential for systemic changes – to fundamentally change what people do as a family, such as making online training accessible, increasing parent engagement in schools and opening up telehealth opportunities.

Addressing infrastructure paves the way for innovation and advancement

Visionary and strategic thinking in Chattanooga sparked investment in infrastructure that have led to innovation and advancement within the community.

Most notably, in 2010, Chattanooga became the first city in the Western Hemisphere to offer 1 gigabit-per-second fiber internet service to all of its residents and businesses in 2010. The investment in fiber smart grid has attracted dozens of tech firms and startups that take advantage of the fast connections for things like telehealth-app development and 3D printing. It is estimated that this smart city infrastructure generated $2.69 billion in economic and community benefit including nearly 10,000 new jobs. Chattanooga capitalizes on this infrastructure to gain insights as well. For example, to better understand how cars and people move about a heavily-traveled area street, EPB partnered with UTC’s Center of Urban Informatics and Progress (CUIP) to establish an Autonomous Vehicle Corridor.  A camera system and a variety of speed, audio and air quality sensors installed along the testbed of Chattanooga’s Martin Luther King Boulevard can detect and track up to 80 different objects – like vehicles, pedestrians, bikes and more – while maintaining their anonymity. Supported by gigabit fiber optics network for high throughput and low latency backhaul, captured data such as traffic patterns, near-miss accidents and even air quality can help city officials address street and signal modifications.

In another example, years ago, Chattanooga recognized the riverfront area as an underutilized resource and embarked on riverfront redevelopment. Created as a private non-profit in 1986 to implement a 20-year twenty-two mile blueprint for Chattanooga’s riverfront and downtown development, River City Company was originally capitalized with $12 million from local foundations and financial institutions. By working with local government, the private sector and the philanthropic sector, River City Company supported and developed specific projects in Downtown Chattanooga such as: the Tennessee Riverwalk, AT&T Field, the Tennessee Aquarium, Riverfront Parkway, and the 21st Century Waterfront Park. By leveraging partnerships, over 4 Billion dollars has been invested since 1986 to create a thriving Downtown Chattanooga. These investments have anchored the tourism and hospitality industry, spurred signature annual events, and have become fixtures of the popular image of Chattanooga. Though Chattanooga has made significant strides over the past 30 years in reinvigorating its riverfront and downtown core, the Riverfront District has also grappled with the challenges of aging infrastructure and amenities, single-mode roadway design, and an “imbalance of tourist and visitor activity relative to local use.” River City Company recently undertook a master planning initiative with community input to envision the next iterations of downtown Chattanooga and the riverfront. Goals include activating the riverfront park system, strengthening connectivity to the riverfront and building inclusivity. For example, while the District’s park assets create a strong foundation for public benefit, their orientation to large-scale events currently conflicts with opportunities for greater daily use. Investing in lighting, shade, seating and other changes may make these spaces more suited to daily use.

Advancement of both EPB and downtown development have contributed to fostering entrepreneurship. Chattanooga has a designated Innovation District in the downtown area. The Brookings Institution defines innovation districts as “geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators. They are also physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically-wired and offer mixed-use housing, office, and retail.” It’s a designated section of a city where creative thinkers, entrepreneurs, students, and tech-savvy innovators can collide and collaborate to conceive and implement new ideas.

Business Improvement District addresses downtown needs

Similar to Asheville, Chattanooga’s downtown and riverfront area has mixed uses with office space, retail, housing and tourist activity. To address the needs of this area, Chattanooga businesses and property holders came together in 2020 to create a Business Improvement District (BID) that works to keep Downtown Chattanooga clean, safe and welcoming. The services provided are meant to enhance, rather than replace, what is provided by the City. Following a stakeholder outreach campaign, sixty percent of property owners signed the petition in support of the BID’s creation. Of those who didn’t sign, 20% were known to oppose the BID but many have since come to support the initiative after seeing the positive results.  Some businesses on the North Shore, right across the river from the downtown area and not included in the BID, were impressed and have expressed interest in the services.

The BID funds a team of ambassadors to keep the downtown area clean, welcoming, and safe. For cleaning, the  crews hit the streets daily in visible bright orange shirts to perform a wide variety of detailed cleaning work like litter pickup, sidewalk sweeping, pressure washing sidewalks, graffiti removal, removal of stickers, gum, and tape from city infrastructure like street poles, and more. Downtown ambassadors contribute to Downtown Safety. While out walking on a weekday afternoon, our group stopped to talk to one of the ambassadors. These ambassadors have extensive hospitality training, social services training, and an all-around customer service orientation. Their jobs are to interact with everyone in the District in a helpful and friendly way to provide information and resources to all. Among the services they provide, ambassadors will walk employees to their car, direct visitors to local businesses and amenities and address panhandling. The ambassadors can also help people in immediate need and  have direct lines with social services providers to assist those who are unhoused.

The BID is funded by a line item fee on annual property tax bills based on an assessment ($0.09 per square foot of the greater of lot size OR building size + $4.95 per linear foot of lot frontage.) A self-continuing board of directors (not elected) oversees the BID – made up of different property owner types (office, retail, restaurant, residential, civic, etc.), non-property owning tenants, as well as the City Council member whose district the Chattanooga Business Improvement District primarily falls within.

We’re not the only ones talking about…

…childcare, kindergarten readiness and reading proficiency: Chattanooga is trying to address these through a children’s cabinet and student success planning initiative that lean on partnerships.

…housing: Rising housing prices and low inventory are impacting them as well.

…short term rentals: Just two weeks before our visit, Chattanooga City Council approved a moratorium on new applications for non-owner occupied short term vacation rentals through Jan. 2023 while they consider how to address enforcement of rental permits and other concerns and study the relationship between rentals and housing prices.

…equity and economic mobility: Enterprise Center has a variety of initiatives aimed at addressing social determinates of health and arming people with skills and resources to increase workforce participation, make technology accessible and foster entrepreneurship among people of color.

The Take-Away

The point of these visits is to look for the key learnings that we can apply to Asheville and Buncombe County. Intercity Visits can spur ideas and action in our community to address the key issues we face. This year’s delegates may find something to implement in their work or be inspired to bolster collaboration across organizations to address cleanliness, education, workforce readiness or equity like we saw in Chattanooga. And we’re looking ahead to what we can learn on our next visit.

Special thanks to our sponsors:

We are grateful to the following companies for their support of the Intercity Visit: ThermoFisher (presenting), Greater Asheville Regional Airport, Chambliss Law, MHAworks Architecture, First Horizon Bank and FASTSIGNS.