Developing 'Chattanoogaland'

Developing 'Chattanoogaland'

June 12th, 2011 by Mike Pare and Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

TASK FORCE


Greater Chattanooga Regional Growth Initiative has named a task force to pick a planning consultant:

• Corinne Allen, Benwood Foundation president

• Brian Anderson, Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce CEO

• Mike Babb, Whitfield County board of commissioners chairman

• Bruz Clark, Lyndhurst Foundation president

• Pete Cooper, Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga president

• Jim Coppinger, Hamilton County mayor

• D. Gary Davis, Bradley County mayor

• Gary Farlow, Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce CEO

• Ron Harr, immediate past Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce chairman

• Beth Jones, Southeast Tennessee Development District executive director

• Ron Littlefield, Chattanooga mayor

• Tom McCallie, Maclellan Family Foundations representative

• Tom Edd Wilson, Chattanooga Chamber CEO

Source: Greater Chattanooga Regional Growth Initiative

After German automaker BMW set up a plant near Greenville, S.C., in the mid-1990s, officials said the region grew so fast that developers were paving over land equal to almost one mall every day.

With Volkswagen's new Chattanooga plant and other key companies helping fuel faster growth in this region, officials in a 16-county area are eyeing how to avoid a fate like Greenville's while still spurring economic momentum.

"Long-term, we need to be looking at the transportation system and other ties we have with each other - financial, the labor market, education systems and how they interact with each other," said Gary Farlow, who heads the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce.

The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce included creation of a 35- to 50-year growth plan in its newest jobs initiative unveiled late last year dubbed "Chattanooga Can Do: Building Tomorrow Today."

A consortium of area leaders, looking for a long-term blueprint unlike anything the region has seen, has sought qualifications from planning consultants nationally. It has drawn 17 responses, said J.Ed. Marston, the Chattanooga Chamber's vice president for marketing.

He said a committee is culling through the responses, and by late summer officials of what's known as the Greater Chattanooga Regional Growth Initiative hope to bring on board a consultant.

According to the effort, planning is expected to be completed in 36 months or less. While the plan is to have about a 40-year horizon, the most critical period will be the next 10 years.

EQUAL PARTS

Marston said the consortium makeup is about equal parts government, business and philanthropic.

"We'd been hearing from people in the community from different perspectives about the realization we're going through a time of opportunity," he said. "We want to maintain the momentum and preserve the things we love about our community."

Chattanooga led other major Tennessee cities in job growth over the past year, thanks in large part to the VW auto assembly plant, a state economist said earlier in the year.

The Chattanooga metropolitan area's employment growth rose nearly 1.5 percent during 2010, University of Tennessee economist Bill Fox told a legislative group in Nashville.

But, the Chattanooga area still is recovering like the rest of Tennessee and the country from the Great Recession.

So far, Tennessee's economy has gotten back about half the 212,000 jobs lost during the recession and it could take another two years before all the losses are erased, officials said.

At the same time, the Chattanooga area has captured not just VW but more than a dozen of its suppliers. In addition, other major firms such as Alstom, Wacker Chemical and Amazon are creating jobs.

Additionally, Chattanooga has completed what officials said is the nation's largest 100 percent fiber-optic network, providing homes and businesses in the region with hyper-fast Internet speeds seen as attracting technology investments in coming years.

Brian Anderson, who heads the Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce, said he's a big supporter of regional planning.

"Chattanooga is ... potentially one of the faster-growing communities in the Southeast," he said. "We're a part of the economy of the region even though we're in Georgia."

RIGHT QUESTIONS

Anderson said he sees the planning initiative as an effort to ask the right questions and bring in an analysis and data from which officials can learn.

The group will look at ways to improve education, economic growth and roads, utilities and other infrastructure, he said.

"Our chance to be a part of the process is a breath of fresh air," Anderson said.

Farlow said there are commonalties in the region, with its work force as a major one.

"There are a lot of things like that which I see as something that can be looked at from a regional level," he said.

Farlow said that by drawing major employers such as Volkswagen and Wacker, that changes the perception about regionalism. The shift should help prevent territorial turf wars in the tri-state, 16-county region, he said.

"With VW and Wacker and other bigger industries, our local leaders are beginning to view themselves as regional more than in the past," he said.

Farlow said he views that as a positive.

"We still have to take care of business at home, but it's a good thing to work together," he said.

Anderson said developing the regional plan gives officials a chance to talk about economic development when entities are not competing for a project.

"It's easy to become territorial and protect turf," he said.

The Whitfield Chamber chief said the regional initiative can look at what land is available for big projects.

He said, for example, Chattanooga may not have another huge greenfield site, but McMinn County, Tenn., or Walker County, Ga., might.

"If a plant goes in Walker County, people [who work at the plant] may live in Chattanooga or shop in Chattanooga .... Chattanooga still wins," Anderson said.

FINANCING

To fund the effort, the Chattanooga Chamber's "Can Do" plan is to earmark $185,000. The business group also aims to raise $1 million from the private sector.

Also, officials hope to garner federal Sustainable Communities grant funding in the range of $3 million to $5 million over three years starting in 2012.

"Fundraising is a work in progress," Marston said. "We've got initial commitments from a number of funding partners." He said it's too early to reveal their names.

At a recent meeting between federal and local officials, a senior adviser at the U.S. Housing and Urban Development said that Sustainable Community grant overseers want to view a good effort to garner the money.

"Though this region has prospered, everybody would attest to the fact that there is unfinished business," said Salin Geevarghese, a Chattanooga native and the HUD adviser.

HUD is looking for the winner to adhere to six "livability principles," which include more transportation choices, affordable housing, enhanced economic competitiveness, support for existing communities, coordinated policies and investment in safe neighborhoods.

If the Sustainable Communities grant doesn't come, the planning effort is to continue on a scaled-back level, according to the initiative.

Officials said that slipping back into the complacency that marked Chattanooga in the middle of last century isn't acceptable.

"I don't think we're in any danger of being overconfident, because the struggle to get here is still fresh in many minds," said Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield.