After decades of moving outward into the suburbs, a growing number of residents is choosing to live within Chattanooga's city limits, according to a new housing report.
In the 1990s, Chattanooga accounted for just 15 percent of the countywide growth in population. But that was better than the 1980s, when the city suffered a population loss of more than 17,000 residents.
But from 2000 to 2009, the city realized its fastest growth since large-scale annexations made in the 1970s. In the past decade, nearly 54 percent of the county's population gains were in the city limits of Chattanooga, U.S. Census Bureau figures indicate.
"People are moving back into the central city because our downtown offers the convenience and energy of an urban city while still providing great parks, walkways and riverfront activity," said Kim White, the president of the downtown development group the River City Co.
White, who moved into a downtown condominium four years ago, said Chattanooga's downtown is attracting a mix of young urban professionals, empty-nest baby boomers and young families who like the city's downtown schools.
The number of housing units in the downtown area increased by 19.4 percent in the past decade, or more than twice the countywide growth pace, figures show.
Such growth marks a turnaround from the 1980s, when the city's population dropped by more than 10 percent, and the 1990s, when the city grew at a sluggish 2 percent pace -- only a fourth as fast as the rest of Hamilton County.
"The degree to which this turnaround is occurring in Chattanooga is remarkable and makes this city unique among comparable industrial cities hurt by the economic shifts we've seen in the past generation," said David Eichenthal, president of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, which compiled the housing study. "It would be hard to imagine this type of resurgence but for some of the improvements that have been made in and around the downtown area."
Dr. June Scobee Rodgers, who moved to Signal Mountain in 1991 but relocated to a downtown condominium five years ago, is part of the movement back into the city.
"We thoroughly enjoyed living in our big home on Signal Mountain where we had lots of room for all of our family," she said. "But we love living downtown now with all of its attractions and our grandchildren love to visit us with all there is to do downtown.
"My husband [retired Army Lt. Gen. Don Rodgers] says that, other than marrying me, moving downtown was the best decision he ever made."
The Rodgers bought a Cherry Street condo within walking distance of the Walnut Street Bridge, the Tennessee Aquarium and several museums.
Since the Tennessee Aquarium opened in downtown Chattanooga in 1992, nearly $2 billion has been invested in and around downtown in new offices, stores, factories, parks and attractions.
But not everyone is returning to the city. The Ochs Center study showed the fastest-growing areas within the city of Chattanooga were in the suburban areas of Ooltewah, Hickory Valley, Mountain Creek and East Brainerd. In the metropolitan area, newer suburbs in Fort Oglethorpe and Ringgold, Ga., and Dunlap, Tenn., were the fastest-growing areas among all communities.
The post-World War II suburbs that developed in the 1950s -- East Ridge, Red Bank and Brainerd -- were among the slowest-growing areas in the past decade, according to census and U.S. Postal Service data.
"It's a mixed bag in most metro areas," said Doug Bachtel, a professor of housing and consumer economics at the University of Georgia. "There are many people wanting to live in the city to be close to their jobs and other amenities. But the American dream for many is still a home with a big yard and open space in suburbia."
White said that Chattanooga, as a midsized city built in the mountains around the Tennessee River, has a downtown area that attracts many outdoor enthusiasts who might otherwise live in suburban or rural areas around other cities.
"We have our challenges in getting enough affordable, rental housing downtown, but I think people really want to live in the core of Chattanooga," she said.
CITY, COUNTY GROWTH
• From 2000 to 2009, the city population grew 10.2 percent, outpacing the 9.5 percent growth for Hamilton County as a whole
• From 1990 to 2000, the city population grew 2 percent, trailing the 7.8 percent growth for Hamilton County as a whole
• From 1980 to 1990, the city population fell 10.1 percent, while the population of Hamilton County as a whole dropped 0.7 percent.
• From 1970 to 1980, city annexations swelled Chattanooga's population by 41.4 percent, outpacing the 12.8 percent growth in the county as a whole
• From 1960 to 1970, the city's population fell 6.4 percent, while the population of Hamilton County as a whole grew 7.2 percent.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Census