published Monday, April 6th, 2009

Chattanooga: Downtown bucks trend and grows


by Cliff Hightower
Audio clip

J. Ed Marston

Audio clip

Bob Corker

Most of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas lost private-sector jobs in their core downtown districts, but Chattanooga was one of three cities to post job growth, a new study shows.

“Chattanooga is notable,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research analyst for Brookings Institute and author of the study of 98 of the largest metropolitan areas by employment.

The “Job Sprawl Revisited: The Changing Geography of Metropolitan Employment,” report examined job sprawl from the downtown core into suburban areas. Ms. Kneebone studied metropolitan areas across the United States and job migration between 1998 and 2006.

Jeff Pfitzer, president of RiverCity Co., said the report validates efforts by the downtown development company.

“This new Brookings study shows that Chattanooga is operating contrary to national trends by capturing some of its job growth to strengthen the urban core,” he said.

Besides Chattanooga, the only other metropolitan areas to show an increase in jobs downtown were the Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis area in Wisconsin and Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura area in California, the report showed.

The study does not take into account the effect of Volkswagen coming to the fringes of the city at the Enterprise South industrial park, Ms. Kneebone said. With a massive auto plant entering Southeast Tennessee, planning becomes paramount to avoid unchecked urban sprawl as second- and third-tier companies open to supply VW.

“This is where planning becomes very important,” she said. “The negative effect is when those decisions are not made cohesively.”

keeping jobs downtown

City leaders said they are not surprised by the study’s findings. J.Ed. Marston, vice president of marketing for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said the cornerstone of downtown employment has been insurance companies such as BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Unum and Cigna as well as the Tennessee Valley Authority.

BlueCross and TVA toyed with moving out of the downtown business district within the last few years, but city leaders persuaded both to stay. BlueCross currently is moving into a new $300 million headquarters complex atop Cameron Hill.

Mr. Marston said Volkswagen is not expected to create job sprawl that would drain the vibrancy of downtown. Instead, he thinks the manufacturer will have a positive impact.

Already, VW has rented office space off Chestnut Street where about 300 white-collar employees will work, he said. When the plant opens, he said more white-collar job offshoots will be created and they will want to be downtown.

The best way to prevent sprawl is smart growth, which he said planners already are tackling. Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency officials could not be reached for comment.

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield also noted other large downtown employers, such as Erlanger and Memorial hospitals.

live, work, play

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a former Chattanooga mayor, said he remembered when BlueCross bought property in Lupton City and considered a move.

“Had BlueCross left the downtown area, it would have been the first of a dissipation,” he said. “It would have been very, very detrimental.”

Sen. Corker said a downtown needs to be a place to “live, work, play.”

Scott Wilson, spokesman for BlueCross, said the renaissance of Chattanooga downtown helps lure and recruit the best employees and a lot of those who want to move away from areas with sprawl.

“We own property five miles out. It would have been easy to move out,” he said. “But with what’s been going on here for the last 20 years, we wanted to stay here.”

Unum, which is expanding its facilities, said the company has “deep roots” in the central business district.

“Unum has been part of the fabric of downtown Chattanooga since 1887, when Provident was founded here,” Jim Sabourin, vice president of corporate communications, said. “We believe this location offers a great quality of life for our employees.”

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