With his visit to Chattanooga, President Obama could not have picked a better place to highlight the economic recovery already in place and the need for all of us to work together to bolster the middle class. The president’s plan ignites a needed discussion on how we spur a renaissance in manufacturing, make strategic investments in technology, education and infrastructure, and create new ladders of opportunity for Chattanooga, for Tennessee, and for the nation.
In many ways, Chattanooga is not very different from industrial cities throughout the nation. We boomed in the 1950s and 1960s only to see sharp economic declines in the 1970s and 1980s. Good jobs in steel and textile mills went overseas. In the 1980s, Chattanooga lost more than 10 percent of our population, and we headed the way of dozens of other U.S. cities where economic decline foreshadowed abandonment.
But we came back. With a strong partnership between local government and our civic sector, Chattanooga began its rise again in the 1990s — becoming the only U.S. city with more than 100,000 residents to lose 10 percent of its population in the preceding decade and begin to gain population in the 1990s.
Our comeback has continued. Manufacturing jobs have begun to return, with major new investments by VW and Wacker as well as the new Amazon distribution facility that President Obama is visiting today. At the same time, we have seen new jobs and new investment across all sectors of the economy. And with access to the fastest Internet connections in North America, Chattanooga’s 21st century economy will be driven by the investment in the Gig — an investment made possible with the support of funding under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.
We have weathered the Great Recession and are on the road to recovery. There are now more people working in Chattanooga than when President Obama took office. But we know that is not good enough for those still without a job or for those who need to work two jobs. It is not good enough for parents and students struggling to pay for college.
By creating manufacturing hubs and networks, a better bargain for the middle class recognizes that our greatest asset – and the key to new manufacturing jobs — is the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of our people. We need to continue investing in research and development in manufacturing here because we know that for every new job in manufacturing, there will be nearly two additional jobs created by suppliers and others.
At the same time, the President recognizes education, innovation and opportunity are inextricably linked. Tennessee and Hamilton County leaders from both parties have worked hard to fix a broken public school system. But real reform requires a strong and active federal partner. As a co-sponsor of the legislation that brought $500 million into our state, I know the importance of Race to the Top to school reform. Continued federal leadership and support for education is critical, from the president’s proposal for universal early child care to the administration’s efforts to lower the cost of higher education.
And just as we need to grow our human capital, we need a strong federal partner who recognizes that investment in physical capital — infrastructure — creates both middle class jobs and long term opportunity for growth. Nearly 75 years ago, another President — Franklin Roosevelt — came to the Tennessee Valley to lay the cornerstone of the Chickamauga Dam. It is inconceivable to think of what our region would be like today without the past, transformative federal investment that was the TVA. We need to place new cornerstones for our budding economy.
Finally, ladders to opportunity and reducing poverty are critical to building a bigger and stronger middle class. For individuals living in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty, the president’s efforts through Promise Neighborhoods and Choice Neighborhoods — and now through Promise Zones — recognize that opportunity requires federal, state, local and nonprofit partners to create jobs and great communities. Through the Administration’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities effort, the federal government promises to work with cities to overcome the same challenges Chattanooga once faced.
For people who live in places like Chattanooga and the Tennessee Valley, we understand the challenges and the opportunities moving forward. I am confident we will build a stronger middle class, with our best days still ahead of us.
Andy Berke is a former Tennessee senator and is now mayor of Chattanooga.