As Chattanooga nears full implementation of strategies for the riverfront, downtown, and Enterprise South, decisions on economic development priorities going forward are really quite simple. Chattanooga either commits its resources now to redevelop the long declining commercial and industrial areas the gangs fight over, or we devote all our economic development resources by default to paving our way to Cleveland. Chattanooga either continues doling out expensive favors to developers for urban gentrification and suburban sprawl at the taxpayers’ expense, or we learn finally how to truly grow from within. Chattanooga either begins to appreciate the strengths we already have and builds to make our economy, environment, and communities more sustainable, or city leaders resign themselves just to react to changes not of our own choosing. Chattanooga either begins to value and market the skills and abilities of its own people, all of its people, or we simply continue fulfilling the endless wish lists of things sought by a relative few.
The city council has within its power to begin setting new economic development policies now. After all, the city council has the ultimate responsibility to decide where and how tax resources are best spent. The following are seven such actions the council could take. These are only dust offs from past plans too easily lost in the city’s short institutional memory:
1. Convene a task force to redirect economic development incentives toward creating new community-based markets in Chattanooga’s long declining, blighted, and neglected commercial and industrial areas. Direct the task force to redesign incentive programs toward creating jobs (and training opportunities) with a family living wage, building and keeping wealth within communities, and encouraging capital investment in the products and services of homegrown businesses.
2. Direct the planning staff to prepare a comprehensive plan for South Chattanooga (Main Street to the Georgia line) including improved I-24 interchanges that capture more business from interstate travelers, a new stormwater management system and wetlands restoration program for the Chattanooga Creek basin, greenways on both sides of the creek (East Lake and Alton Park), and public investments to make blighted commercial and industrial areas more marketable. Direct the staff to collaborate with the education system, nonprofit community organizations, and all entities involved in economic development to marshal and leverage resources to their greatest effect.
3. Direct the planning staff to prepare similar plans on a smaller scale for the Central Avenue corridor and the blighted commercial and industrial areas of East Chattanooga.
4. Resolve that Chattanooga’s number one business recruiting priority is a large centrally located grocery store to serve the food desert that has too long existed in Chattanooga’s urban core. Direct that tax incentives and public investments be tailored to remove the barriers and create the redevelopment synergies necessary to make this happen. (If Chattanooga can recruit VW, we can surely recruit a grocery store.)
5. Direct the mayor and the planning staff to make Eastgate interstate access a part of any planning for improvements to the interchange of 1-75 and I-24.
6. Direct the Department of Economic and Community Development to incorporate community-based solutions for preventing and ameliorating gentrification in all related HUD consolidated planning, including a review of programs that may have an adverse affect on the supply of housing affordable to people with low to moderate incomes.
7. Seed an effort to establish a strong nonprofit economic development corporation to further facilitate all the above, creating new tools and partnerships a fit to the tasks (a large flexible micro business loan program for example).
The communities affected are not without vision. Imagine Chattanooga Creek greenway, wetlands, and stormwater projects that are jobs and jobs training programs too. Imagine community-based code enforcement that includes a work force to help address problems instead of picking on Grandma whose grandson who mowed the lawn had to move away for work, or worse, stayed and landed in criminal justice system. Imagine new and creative community-based solutions to housing and food security, residential property appearance and livability, and micro business development. Imagine a nonprofit sector as committed to funding the administrative costs of a microloan program as the Choo Choo Terminal’s maintenance costs. Imagine communities where everybody’s vision matters.
We once called that “the Chattanooga way.”
(career planner and policy analyst in local government as well as community-based strategic planning in high poverty areas nationally)