BERLIN - Three decades ago, a group of Chattanoogans traveled to Indianapolis and got inspired enough by that city's downtown riverfront renaissance to pursue a similar approach at home.
The example of Indianapolis -- and other cities visited by Chattanooga delegations through the 1980s -- eventually spurred Chattanooga to build the world's biggest freshwater aquarium and a 21st Century waterfront park in downtown Chattanooga.
"Those trips to other U.S. cities were very helpful in Chattanooga finding its own way and learning from others, and now we're ready to take that concept and put it on steroids," said Ron Harr, president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, who participated in several intercity trips a generation ago as a Chamber volunteer.
Now as head of the 2,000-member Chamber, Harr is among more than three dozen business, academic and community leaders who arrived here today for a weeklong trip through Germany. Harr says the visit could end up being as significant as the famed trip to Indianapolis.
"We have benefited tremendously by the interest and investment among Germans in our city, and it only makes sense to go to Germany and learn more about their way of doing business and to build more relationships across the globe," he said.
The two biggest private investments ever in Southeast Tennessee -- the $1 billion automobile assembly plant by Volkswagen in Chattanooga and the $2 billion polysilicon production plant being built by Wacker Chemie in Charleston, Tenn., -- have helped propel Germany to the No. 2 spot among foreign-based companies investing in the state. Only Japan with its $15 billion of investment from Nissan, Bridgestone, Komatsu and dozens of other companies has a bigger investment in the Volunteer State.
Dr. Will Sutton, dean of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga engineering school, is making his third trip to Germany and Volks-wagen's headquarters facility in Wolfsburg.
"You can send videos, brochures or even your own recruiter to another country to tell about what your town has to offer, but when you have a cross section of a community like this Chamber group travel and try to learn from and develop relationships with another country, I think that's tremendous," Sutton said. "We want to learn about the culture of Germany, which is so important to knowing about the way the growing number of German companies operate in our own community."
Two of the six cities with which Chattanooga has a Sister City relationship are in Germany -- Wolfsburg and Hamm.
Beyond building cultural relations, Chattanooga leaders also are trying to woo Volkswagen to expand its Chattanooga facility to begin making its proposed new crossover SUV. The Chamber also is reaching out to more suppliers to VW to help expand the economic impact from the 3,300-employee plant.
"German companies have made a huge investment in Chattanooga, so it's certainly in everyone's interest for us to go to their homeland and find out more about their culture and country," said Patsy Hazlewood, the regional director for the Department of Economic and Community Development in Chattanooga.
Tennessee also is trying to expand its international presence and boost it exports with new foreign trade offices in four cities, including Dusselforf in Germany.
"We're pushing hard on trade, especially for the small and medium-sized companies that could do much more," said Bill Hagerty, Tennessee's commissioner for Economic and Community Development who traveled around the globe early in his career with the Boston Consulting Group.
Tennessee exports have tripled in the past decade to a record $31.1 billion, and Hagerty said the exchange rates could boost Tennessee exports further.