published Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

New planner brings experience to post

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    Staff Photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press John Bridger, newly appointed head of the Regional Planning Authority, left, sits next to Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission Chairman Dale Mabee during a commission meeting.

A neighborhood rehabilitator has taken over as the new executive director of the Regional Planning Agency, the body tasked with planning for growth in Chattanooga and Hamilton County.

John Bridger, who served as comprehensive planning director at the agency for a decade, more recently worked to revitalize the city's downtrodden neighborhoods with Community Impact of Chattanooga.

Bridger was appointed to take the job after Barry Bennett retired earlier this year from the agency after 41 years.

Claude Ramsey, Hamilton County mayor, said Bridger's experience gives him the right background to lead the city and county's planning efforts.

"It's important that we have an orderly process for development," said Ramsey.

Bridger began his new job with the RPA, which oversees zoning and long-term planning, in early November by "getting the stakeholders involved" in what he calls "shaping Chattanooga and the region's future."

Officials agree that while most residents have little concept about zoning's impact on their daily lives, the decisions made by city and county planners have a direct effect on the size, shape and feel of communities throughout the region.

Dale Mabee, chairman of the regional planning commission, said Bridger's rise to the post comes at a critical time for the city, as the area's growth begins to test the government's ability to provide services to the population.

"The average citizen may only see the role of zoning recommendations that determine the use of a particular piece of property," Mabee said.

But each individual zoning case that comes before area planners is part of a bigger plan, one that Bridger and others will spend months fleshing out.

"We have a vital challenge and responsibility to make sure that this growth is planned carefully, maintaining and improving our quality of life in the process," Mabee said. "The agency's creation of countywide general plans and more specific area and neighborhood plans are crucial to the betterment of our community."

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said the region's chief concern moving forward is handling the growth stemming from recent employment gains.

"We have to plan to absorb the growth and to provide for it with new infrastructure, new roads, new utilities and all that a growing community requires," Littlefield said. "As a rule of thumb, we need to envision Chattanooga with twice the population, because with the way we're growing that could be accomplished in a relatively short period of time."

AT A GLANCE

* Name: John Bridger

* Job: Executive director of the Regional Planning Agency

* Age: 43

* Education: Master's degree in planning -- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

* Quote: "You can't have a healthy neighborhood without jobs, you can't recruit businesses without good neighborhoods, so you've got to have a balance of jobs and a variety of housing choices, which I think is a strength of our community."

There are "always tensions between those who are for growth at all costs and those who want no growth at all," he added, but most people agree there is a happy medium between the two that allows economic progress while preserving quality of life for residents.

"We're not likely to be another Atlanta, but to accommodate the growth we're experiencing, we need to take a lesson from Atlanta, like building the roads and necessary utility infrastructure to support the area while it grows," Littlefield said, noting zoning had "not always been followed very well" in some areas around the edge of the city.

For his part, Bridger said he plans to be a consensus-builder, but he also has his own ideas about how to move the region forward.

He said he has already identified "our scenic assets, our low cost of government, our low taxes and education attainment" as some of the area's core assets to protect when looking to the future.

Bridger plans to complete his listening and interview process with area leaders over the next two months and will have a long-term plan in place within a year, he said.

"It's not just an exercise in visioning what we want to be like. We have to ask how we're gonna get there," he said.

The executive committee that unanimously chose him out of a field of 46 applicants included Littlefield, Ramsey and Mabee, as well as City Councilman Manny Rico and Fred Skillern, chairman of the County Commission.

Contact Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ellisthered.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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