Is Chattanooga Running Out Of Ideas?

  • Wednesday, August 10, 2022

It seems every time we need an anchor for a new area added to the RiverCity footprint, we move a stadium. Is Chattanooga running out of ideas? The baffling unanimity of the city council on the Lookouts stadium project makes me feel like I’m the only one asking that. 

The aquarium became the anchor of downtown riverfront development because of the intellectual honesty of an Urban Land Institute panel of master developers convened to study Moccasin Bend (not the downtown riverfront). Chattanooga’s transformation came about through a community decision-making process that was wildly participatory and transparent. Today, community benefits and transparency are an afterthought.

The panel that studied Moccasin Bend reviewed a large volume of advance material before arriving in Chattanooga. After one day of field work here, the panel subtracted the loss of public good from the potential public good that might have been gained by developing Moccasin Bend and decided on an altogether different course. The panel soon produced a report recommending that Chattanooga and Hamilton County instead focus on downtown riverfront development anchored by the site on which the aquarium now stands.

Instead of being hellbent on old ways of thinking, community leadership embraced the challenge. Instead of relying on inward groupthink, leaders organized large groups of citizens from all walks of life, including naysayers, to tour the best examples of riverfront development in the country. They studied how other communities had accelerated transformational change. Based on that, they created Chattanooga Venture and the Vision 2000 process in which well over 2,000 citizens participated. With an outward view and genuine community involvement, Chattanooga and Hamilton County soon exceeded the examples from other communities. Chattanooga was transformed by the many ideas that emerged.

I hear some faint echoes of that history. Some of the best new ideas in the community are coming bottom up. Proponents of a community benefits agreement for the stadium project have some great ideas that should be taken up on a much larger scale, not just as an afterthought. A community land trust, for example, is no less an economic development tool than PILOT or TIF. Well-funded and well handled, it has the potential to be far more impactful because it would help build wealth within the community instead of sucking it out. There are surely some good examples of community land trusts we can study and implement even better here.

There are so many other new ideas just waiting to emerge with a transparent community-based decision-making process. If we can move mountains to keep a double A minor league team here, someone surely has ideas on how we might bring Little League back or how we might fund better sports facilities at public schools.

If you can read a map, it is easy to see that the old RiverCity mission will have all but run its course with South Broad redevelopment. We are fresh out of industrial mega sites too. Are we ready for new ideas now?

Frank Wrinn

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