Chattanooga's movers and shakers filled Miller Plaza on Thursday at the official unveiling of downtown's new brand at the celebration of the founding 25 years ago of River City Co.
The new brand will initially be most visible downtown on more than 300 banners showing generic residents with the slogan, "Chattanooga happens downtown," stripped across their faces. There's even a smiling shark character that will grace the streets surrounding the Tennessee Aquarium.
The plan is for each banner to be customized based on districts like the Southside or North Shore to help visitors find their way, and to give "cohesiveness and a sense of identity" to each area, according to Kim White, CEO of River City.
Created by White's River City in conjunction with more than two dozen local organizations and leaders, the new brand serves as both a celebration of the Chattanooga story so far and a preview of what's to come, she said.
"All of us working together is what makes this downtown so great," White said. "Twenty-five years ago, we had to create events like this just to get people to come downtown."
The nonprofit development group helped lead to the creation of the Tennessee Aquarium and Chattanooga's Riverfront and tourist attractions that bring more than 3 million visitors to the city every year, White said. Downtown is home to 600 businesses that collectively employ 50,000 workers.
"River City has taken some slings and arrows, but you just can't argue with their results," said Zach Wamp, the former Republican congressman. "The private and public sector cooperated in an unprecedented way to make this happen."
That cooperation began with an idea and an endowment from the late John T. "Jack" Lupton, the Coca-Cola bottling magnate whose name was on the lips of many attendees.
"The philanthropy that came from his plan really initiated this renaissance," Wamp said.
As part of the downtown promotion campaign, CARTA has agreed to cover five of its 12 buses with Chattanooga-branded art for two years as part of the plan to promote the city. River City also has created concepts for 60 to 90 new directional signs to route motorists and pedestrians more effectively around the city.
White wants to put up the new, larger signs within three to six months to replace the street signs that now advertise the city's attractions.
Much of River City's current plan, however, depends on additional funding from the private and public sectors to continue downtown's resurgence.
Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said the county isn't likely to find money in its budget to fund the non-profit this year, but Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's reccomendation for $80,000 to fund it has gone unchallenged thus far in City Council meetings, said City Councilman Peter Murphy.
The total need is more than $850,000, including $100,000 from EPB and about $500,000 from private organizations, White has said.
Lisa Flint, River City's vice president of marketing, initially came up with the idea for the downtown brand when she was working to create a website that included all the merchants and opportunities for downtown shoppers and visitors.
"I realized that we didn't have any kind of mark or a brand for downtown that we could put on each of the pages," she said.
With that gap now bridged, River City now will work with others such as the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau to include the brand in advertising inside and outside the city.
However, their main focus at this point is other Chattanoogans.
Flint has planned billboards for Interstate 24, I-75 and elsewhere to remind Chattanooga residents in outlying areas about the opportunities that await them in the downtown core.
"The marks right now that are used focus on Chattanooga as a place. We need to move past that to the energy and the vibe," she said.
Albert Waterhouse, a public relations professional who is assisting River City with the rollout, called the new brand "part of the animation of the downtown."
"When someone comes and visits, you want them to say, 'that's the coolest place, they've got their act together and it's just more fun.'"