published Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Cook: Do they make green manhole covers?

We don't need another downtown hotel like the one being planned at the end of the Walnut Street Bridge.

We need affordable, middle- to lower-class housing for downtown.

Because the future of Chattanooga -- our next 20 years -- will not include building another Tennessee Aquarium, the cornerstone of tourism that makes our 55-zuptrillion downtown hotel rooms already possible.

Our next 20 years will be based on making downtown a livable place, not just a weekend destination. People move to exciting, vibrant, affordable, 21st century-leaning, sustainably minded cities.

A green Chattanooga is the new aquarium.

That's why it's bad news -- coal-in-the-stocking, Xanax-in-the-drinking-water, acid-rain-from-the-sky bad news -- that the city's Office of Sustainability has become even more of an afterthought than ever before. David Crockett, who headed the office since its inception in 2009, announced he would step down next month, prompting a move to fold the Office of Sustainability into the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency.

"I work directly for the mayor," Crockett said Tuesday. "He said he didn't have the money to fully fund the office."

In 2010, Crockett and his staff -- so committed to their jobs Crockett believes they'd work for free -- took a $2 million federal grant and instituted programs such as retrofitted buildings and the Global Green street lighting program that reduce pollution, create jobs, save energy and beautify the city.

"We've saved the city $5 million a year," he said. "We project to save $30 [million] to $50 million over the next 15 years."

The federal grant is running dry and, in the 2013 proposed city budget, the Office of Sustainability -- responsible for millions in savings -- was given scraps from the table: $100,000.

By contrast, the $209 million proposed budget includes more than $150,000 for sewer grates and manhole covers. We'll spend nearly $2 million on our municipal golf course budget.

When was the last time anyone moved to Chattanooga because of Brown Acres and Brainerd golf courses? Yet they're funded at eight times the amount of the Office of Sustainability.

A 21st century Chattanooga has so much promise. So much intelligence and entrepreneurial creativity. The Gig City. The under-30 crowd. The mountains and rivers around us. The arts and a Main Street hipness.

In each aspect, there is more than a touch of green. Consider the two companies responsible for our return to manufacturing: VW and Alstom -- both hold sustainability as a core value.

For Chattanooga and Hamilton County to continue to attract promising and intelligent people and businesses, sustainability must become more than an afterthought in government priorities.

The Office of Sustainability ought to be tripled, a part of every planning meeting, given powers over Public Works. The Sustainability director should be the most visible, respected and outspoken member of the mayor's staff.

Consider the current stormwater crisis, expected to cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars. Crockett and his office have a solution: No Roof Left Behind. Offer downtown building owners a $5-per-square-foot incentive to green-roof their existing structures. Remove their downspout connection so that no water flows into sewers. Add green landscaping to capture falling rainwater before it hits the sewers.

Our current plan is like catching rivers of rain with an espresso cup.

"It would create more jobs than you could imagine, and the city would not look, feel or behave anything like it does now," Crockett said. "It would be a magnet for money and investing and a place people would move back to."

There's the line: a place people would move to.

"Cities have to compete just like everybody else," he said. "We're competing to be the best city we can possibly be."

Currently, it's hard to sling a squiggly light-bulb and not hit a city government without some form of an Office of Sustainability. According to its website, Louisville, Ky., has one, so do Durham and Asheville, N.C.; Indianapolis; Nashville; Baltimore,; Santa Monica, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; Tacoma, Wash.; Tucson; Milwaukee. Even Newark, N.J.

But no longer Chattanooga.

"The [city] with the best place wins," said Crockett.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@hushmail.com.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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