Cities rise or fall on the vision and commitment of their leaders, and their ability to steer a city forward over time. The slow pace of incremental change in the life of a city often obscures that maxim. Yet when we look back over the accomplishments of special leaders who helped put the city on the path to our current progress, it resonates vibrantly. That’s especially true with regard to the service and achievements of former Chattanooga Mayor Gene Roberts, who died a week ago at age 80.
A quick review of just a few milestones achieved under his guiding hand in the four terms he served as mayor from 1983 to 1996 suggests the scope of his leadership.
Roberts advocated the merger of the old city and county school systems in 1996, a decision which did much to address the lingering wounds and inequities of a racially split education structure that had long fostered racial gamesmanship among city and county leaders in pursuit of school funding and integration.
He was instrumental in the acquisition and clean-up of the 6,000-acre Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant, a federal facility that to obtain required years of persuasive badgering at the Pentagon. The result was the creation of the Enterprise South industrial park, now a TVA-certified megasite and the venue which enabled the city’s manufacturing renaissance.
When the vanishing industrial base drove the city to its knees in the 1980s, Roberts also supported the goals developed by the Moccasin Bend task force, which envisioned and advanced the city’s riverfront development and spurred the city’s downtown revival. That became the foundation for so much of the economic development that has since renewed this community’s job base, quality of life and can-do confidence.
He supported the grassroots public movement to put aside plans to demolish the venerable Walnut Street Bridge, and instead to renovate and use it as the key pedestrian connection linking the south and north shores of the riverfront. That work nurtured the larger vision of an extensive network of greenways from the Riverwalk and riverside parks that sparked broader community renewal.
Roberts provided instrumental support for creation of Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, the entity that fostered affordable housing in the city for low-income families through unique mortgage assistance programs and new home-owner counseling. That effort, along with his support of the Community Kitchen on 11th Street and help for the homeless, reflected Roberts’ personal understanding of the roots of poverty. He learned that the hard way, as a youngster growing up in the “Onion Bottom” area in that vicinity. That’s why the City Council renamed the city’s Public Works Department’s quarters there last week in honor of Roberts.
His childhood background stood Roberts in good stead throughout his life, tempering him against hardship and nurturing his resilience, work ethic and compassion. A graduate of Chattanooga High School and the University of Chattanooga, Roberts served in the Navy during the Korean War, worked at the former Chattanooga Times as an editor and later as an editorial writer, and did stints in between as a public relations aide to Mayor P.R. (Rudy) Olgiati and as an FBI agent.
His varied ventures combined to seed his bent for public service. In Roberts’ first political outing in 1971, he defeated the city’s incumbent, and notably notorious, James (Bookie) Turner, who as commissioner of the city’s Fire and Police Department had been named as an un-indicted co-conspirator in a massive police corruption case tried here in federal court.
His two terms in that post prompted then-Gov. Lamar Alexander to appoint him as chief of the state’s Department of Safety in January 1979. He made his leap to the city’s mayoral office in 1983, taking 56 percent of the vote in a five-candidate race.
When the city shifted from a five-member commission form of government to a racially fair district-based City Council form of government under a federal court mandate in 1990, Roberts easily continued to win the mayor’s office twice more before retiring in 1996.
His political successes came easily because of his reputation for integrity, fairness and collaboration with community leaders in pursuit of the city’s renaissance and economic revival.
Gene Roberts set a high standard. He will be respectfully remembered as a vital architect of the city’s resurgence, and as a fair and abiding family man and friend to many in this community.