With 3,000 students living on campus and college students spending 24 percent more money than in previous years, some local leaders are beginning to recognize a missed opportunity with the local student population.
Even though UTC's campus is less than a mile away from downtown, it might as well be many miles away for most students. According to a survey of more than 600 students, 67 percent would rather drive downtown than walk, and the average student only visits downtown two times or less per week.
"River City Group and UTC came together and introduced a special class to do marketing research on this problem," said UTC graduate student Peter Sauska in a recent presentation to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce Downtown Council. "We wanted to explore the connection UTC students have to the community, better understand student opinions and explore needs and ideas that would improve this problem."
Through their research, which included focus groups, surveys and other processes, a team of undergraduate and graduate students found that the lack of a college town atmosphere, affordable commerce options and safe transportation routes were the biggest barriers preventing students from connecting with downtown more frequently.
Student presenter Ruben Gamboa said the group was surprised by how many students said they felt unsafe traveling by public transportation or by foot downtown. He said the group attributed this primarily to dead zones between the campus and downtown.
"Dead zones are large areas without a lot of activity, low police presence or not enough lighting," said Gamboa. "Two of the solutions we found for that were better-lit greenways so people could be comfortable walking late at night and a bus or trolley that goes directly to and from campus that would help students skip over those areas."
The group also found that students would like to see more affordable living and shopping options downtown. An affordable local grocery store was particularly important to students, Gamboa said.
"There are places to go on campus to buy products, but they said anything is better than paying UTC prices," he said. "The next thing that students really jumped at was the thought of living downtown, but there was a negative aspect to that as well. Students said they had a feeling only two types of people live downtown: wealthy people in condos or poor people living off government subsidies. Students felt like there wasn't a place for them."
College town atmosphere
More student-friendly activities and attractions downtown were also recurring themes in the group's research, said presenter Joe Ellis.
"We believe the student perception is that downtown Chattanooga largely supports visitors, not the student community," he said. "These places are great but I can't afford to see an IMAX movie and go to Big River every week."
Ellis said the group was surprised to realize that just under half of UTC's students are under the age of 21, so bars and clubs aren't the kinds of activities approximately 4,950 students are missing in Chattanooga. He said the group recommends a potential mini mall or student commercial hub and more signage to denote the university and university pride.
"We have some small signs along McCallie Avenue, but other than that you would never know we are here," he said. "We have a nationally recognized business school and we have a huge tourist industry. Why are we not advertising to people who already love Chattanooga and could send their children to school here?"
Even though reaching more students could potentially increase spending downtown, Ellis said reaching the campus is also about building a stronger Chattanooga community.
"We have a great university," he said. "We don't have a tier-one athletic department, but we have a lot to be thankful for."
According to Ellis, engaging the student population while they are students is influential in keeping talent in Chattanooga and bringing talented professionals back to the Scenic City after they have begun their careers.
"The truth of the matter is students feel like Chattanooga is a stepping stone; it's a pass-through," he said. "We want to create a place where they can get involved and come back to."