Chattanooga is looking to green up its image and future — again.
In the 1990s Chattanooga gained attention as “the Environmental City,” building on its turnaround in 30 years from the nation’s worst air city to a federally recognized “clean air” city. The President’s Council of Sustainable Development met here and pinned a national model on the area. But since then, other cities moved past Chattanooga’s pioneering vision.
Now city and county leaders want to refine the old idea and capitalize on the new popularity of “green.”
“There were certainly some advantages gained from that effort (in the ’90s),” Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey said. “But we might have been preaching more than practicing in those days. Now, we’re probably practicing more than preaching.”
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield kicked off Chattanooga’s new Green Committee citizen visioning process Thursday, officially rejuvenating the city’s campaign of sustainability and asking residents to sign a pledge to green their own lives. About 500 people attended the event and brainstormed ideas ranging from expanding local public transportation to making the most of rainwater catchment systems.
Touting research showing Chattanooga recycling has increased by 34 percent, Mr. Littlefield said he hopes the ideas will move the city to goals residents and officials never thought possible.
“It’s a welcome change that the whole idea of environment and green initiatives, as they have come to be called, are an important part of many communities. Chattanooga’s image is hard to match or exceed,” he said.
Mr. Ramsey and Mr. Littlefield this month signed personal pledges to reduce their own energy consumption, and Mr. Littlefield has signed Chattanooga onto the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Climate Protection agreement. The agreement calls on cities to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent from 1990 levels by 2012. This month, Forbes Magazine highlighted the city’s environmental and technology turnaround in a report on the rebirth of Chattanooga.
Linking past and future
In the 1990s, Chattanooga gained worldwide recognition when the city touted itself as “the Environmental City” and the President’s Council of Sustainable Development came to Chattanooga to look at Chattanooga as a future model.
Then-Vice President Al Gore and the President’s Council on Sustainable Development visited Chattanooga and rolled out the red carpet for green industry to come to the Scenic City.
“While I’m sitting here with all these Fortune 500 companies, let me tell you that any company looking for a place to locate that is deeply committed to sustainable development ... Chattanooga is the place to come,” Mr. Gore said during the opening council meeting in Chattanooga.
Those were the heydays of the Environmental City, sometimes also called the Sustainable City.
But city political administrations, as well as Chamber of Commerce strategies, changed, and the movement lost steam. In the past two years, Chattanooga was absent from lists of “green” or “sustainable cities” by National Geographic, Popular Science, Organic Gardening and Grist magazines.
The Environmental City movement’s leader, former Chattanooga Councilman Dave Crockett, said the city backed away from the Environmental City slogan and marketing in the late 1990s because some local manufacturers claimed it limited industrial prospects.
“The result was missed opportunity,” said Mr. Crockett, who pushed a plan to make Chattanooga a visioning and conference center for the world’s brightest environmental planners, movers and shakers. The theory, he believed, eventually would have brought Chattanooga high-tech, high-wage jobs.
With the inauguration of then-new Mayor Jon Kinsey, political support for the idea began to fail. Mr. Kinsey said he believed the city needed a broader, “more diversified” approach, and the Chamber of Commerce adopted new job-seeking campaigns called “Tell the World” and “Chattanooga Can Do.”
Chattanooga Manufacturing Association President and CEO Ray Childers said he still thinks the Environmental City push at the time may have cost Chattanooga jobs.
“I had some friends in South Carolina who were telling me they hoped we would continue it because it was pushing development their way,” he said.
Meanwhile, industries across the nation were busy embracing a green image. Today many major manufacturers are building plants powered with methane gas from landfills and honing the technology for zero emissions.
Some cities, such as Albuquerque, N.M., were taking ideas they first heard here and making them reality on their streets.
Staff Photo by Gillian Bolsover -- Kevin Sexton puts new batteries into one of Chattanooga’s electric shuttles. The buses run from the Chattanooga Choo-Choo to the North Shore about every five minutes.
Jim Vaughan Jr., the president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce in 1995, recalls that a visiting Albuquerque delegation then had mixed views on promoting the environment as a municipal policy. The New Mexico group also acknowledged that Albuquerque was not as far along as Chattanooga in embracing new sustainable efforts.
But last year, Albuquerque was recognized by the U.S. Conference of Mayors as the greenest city in the nation after the city government cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 67 percent since 2000 and now generates nearly 15 percent of city government electricity from solar power. The city proclaims its title on banners and billboards for visitors and natives alike.
“Of course I thought Chattanooga should have had that title, and we worked to earn it,” Mr. Vaughan said. “But if Chattanooga missed out on being recognized as the ‘sustainable city,’ it was the only thing it missed. Chattanooga is a still a great city with a great environmental story.”
Telling that story a decade ago was less popular.
“We were ahead of the curve, and there are people who get nervous when you are out there,” Mr. Vaughan said. “Today, looking back, it’s clear it was absolutely the best strategy, and it gave us a way to differentiate Chattanooga from other cities.”
Mr. Crockett, still passionate about his idea, said the business world itself is pointing the way, and it’s up to the city to follow.
“Would it make a difference for a Toyota and other automobile plants (if Chattanooga’s early green momentum hadn’t slowed)? Don’t know. It worked for Curitiba, Brazil, the city with a similar strategy,” he wrote in an e-mail last week. “They recruited four automobile plants over the last 15 years emphasizing a green industrial park in a Sustainable City. It couldn’t have hurt us.”
Jerry Adams, president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce in 1996, said Chattanooga’s misunderstood Environmental City concept may be better accepted now.
“Many business leaders (then) thought of it as environmental regulations, and something that would increase the cost of doing business,” he said. “It was really an attempt to say to businesses that, to be competitive in the future, you are going to have to be efficient with the use of materials.”
Mr. Childers agreed, saying today’s modern manufacturers would not be nearly as skeptical of embracing a green city image.
“It’s coming back — like most things do,” he said. “Any manufacturer would love to have zero waste because it means zero lost investments, zero lost money, zero lost value.”
Despite what might have been some missed opportunities, Chattanooga continues to be recognized for its environmental turnaround.
CBS’ “Early Morning Show” in February highlighted Chattanooga as one of the four best places in the world for a “green vacation.” Other sites included the Galapagos Islands in South America; the car-free islands near Key West, Fla.; and Burlington, Vt., billed as the most sustainable city in America.
“Clearly, there has been and continues to be an effort in the community to make us more sustainable,” Mr. Kinsey said. “It didn’t make sense to me to put all of our eggs in that basket.”
Jobs records bear that out.
Chattanooga’s job growth in the 1990s was nearly 30 percent below the rest of Tennessee, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Records also show that since the Chamber of Commerce launched its “Tell the World” campaign to recruit a more diverse mix of business in 2003, Chattanooga’s employment growth has stayed slightly ahead of the statewide rate.
As for tomorrow, Karen Hundt, director of the Planning & Design Studio since 2001 and active during the 1990s in steering Chattanooga’s sustainable city movement, said Chattanooga can catch up.
“It means we’ve just got to get back on track and get busy,” she said. “One of the great things about this community is that almost always we can find a way to get it done.”
In the private sector, Greenspaces, backed by the Lyndhurst and Benwood foundations and RiverCity Co., is a three-year, $2 million initiative started in January to spur local builders and designers to develop more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly buildings in Chattanooga.
“I think as a community in the 1990s, we kind of dropped the ball,” said Jeff Cannon, director of Greenspaces. “But there are some encouraging signs again.”
BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee plans to gain green certification for its $299 million office complex being built on Cameron Hill — the largest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design building in Tennessee.
J. Ed. Marston, director of marketing for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said the city’s new “Can Do” brand still touts the idea of promoting a cleaner and greener community.
Wayne Cropp, an environmental attorney who once headed the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau, points to four local brownfield projects as real-time greening.
“It’s not too late to plant our flag, if you will, about environmental initiatives,” he said.
Mr. Cropp now leads the Enterprise Center, an umbrella nonprofit organization overseeing more than a dozen federally funded entities, many of which have a technology focus.
“We’ve matured as a community, and the environmental movement has matured. We can use that to our advantage,” he said.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...