Lifestyle, vibe, cost of living attract residents in their 20s and 30s to Chattanooga

Lifestyle, vibe, cost of living attract residents in their 20s and 30s to Chattanooga

June 9th, 2013 by Shelly Bradbury in Local Regional News

Kelsey Waligora poses for a portrait with her boyfriend, Mike VanSleen, with a bicycle outside their Chattanooga apartment Thursday. Waligora and VanSleen moved to Chattanooga from Miami in August, and they say they enjoy the outdoor activities that the city has to offer.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.


* 2008: 774

* 2009: 883

* 2010: 1,036

* 2011: 1,222

* 2012: 1,378

Source: Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development

Kelsey Waligora was on a rock-climbing trip in Alabama last spring when someone suggested they head north to Chattanooga.

The 23-year-old Miami resident knew nothing about the Scenic City, but she and boyfriend Mike VanSleen agreed to the spur-of-the moment visit. They stayed in the Southside's The Crash Pad hostel and climbed for a few days.

And at the end of the trip, they were sold. Four months later, VanSleen walked away from his job as a graphic designer and Waligora quit her position at a dermatology clinic. The pair packed up and moved from Miami to Chattanooga.

"We loved the vibe of the city," Waligora said. "So we were like, 'All right, let's do it.' We moved in August and we've been here ever since."

They didn't have jobs lined up in Chattanooga. They didn't have family here. They just liked the city.

"I was making good money in Miami, and I thought, 'This is going to be crazy,'" Waligora said. "It was nerve-wracking. But living here has been awesome. I would do it all over again."

Waligora and VanSleen are part of a growing group of young people who are opting to settle in Chattanooga during their 20s or 30s. Between 2000 and 2010, the most recent numbers available, the number of 20- to 34-year-olds in Chattanooga grew by 11 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and locals say that trend has intensified in the last couple of years.

"We're definitely seeing it more and more frequently," said Josh Davis, president-elect of the Young Professionals Association of Chattanooga. "Not only are Chattanoogans staying here, but people from other cities are staying here, too."

Davis is seeing it in YPAC membership numbers. The group had about 150 members in 2011, and that number has grown to more than 275 today. Much of that growth has been in the last eight months, he said.

And many area college students think Chattanooga is on the right track, a Chattanooga Times Free Press survey of almost 400 seniors graduating from area colleges revealed this spring. While 55 percent of respondents said they think the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction, nearly 70 percent said they think Chattanooga is headed in the right direction.

But the perception of Chattanooga as an attractive place to live and work is a 180-degree switch from the city's not-so-distant past.

"For a lot of years, the main thing you wanted to do was to get out of here," said Bill Sudderth, president of the Chattanooga Land Co., who has worked on downtown and industrial development activities for the past four decades. "I think you look in the late '60s and on up through the early '80s, there was a real job drain in the manufacturing area. And the perception was that the jobs are leaving here, not coming here. And it seems like that's changing."

But why? Part of it is jobs. Part of it is location and size. And part of it, as Waligora points out, is vibe.

"It's just so different from South Florida," she said. "The people are different."

Scenic balance

Justin Burd loves being outside. He spent years as a professional kayaker and rock climber. He married a river raft guide and started his daughter rock climbing before she was 2 years old.

For 11 years, he lived in Fayetteville, W.V. And it was beautiful. But empty.

The 34-year-old moved back to Chattanooga, his childhood home, three years ago. He came for the city's rocks and creeks -- which are just as good as West Virginia's, he said -- but he also came so his wife could open up a restaurant. So his daughter would get a better education.

His wife is a manager at Champy's Chicken on M.L. King Boulevard.

"Fayetteville was a one-light town," he said. "It was one strip of road, and that was about it. Here there are people out doing things, spending money, and the population is just bigger. Chattanooga has a little bit of everything."

There's no doubt that Chattanooga's hiking trails, rivers and cliffs are a major draw for young workers. Millennials are all about work-life balance, and the Scenic City's scenic offerings help young workers walk that line.

"You can get a job anywhere," said Nicholas Campbell, who moved to Chattanooga from Louisiana seven years ago when he was 25. "But you'd be miserable working anywhere if you didn't have something you enjoy outside of work."

But Chattanooga's appeal is not based solely on its greenery. The area's hiking, biking and boating piqued Campbell's interest -- and then he realized his salary would stretch a little bit further in Chattanooga.

The city's cost of living is almost 8 percent lower than the national average, according to the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness. Chattanoogans pay less than most people for housing, groceries, transportation and health care -- the largest drop is in utilities, which cost about 14 percent less in Chattanooga than other U.S. cities.

When Waligora moved to Chattanooga from Miami, her car insurance was cut in half. Housing was less expensive, too.

"It's crazy cheap to live here," she said. "And when we realized that, that was a big incentive."


But still, no matter how low the cost of living or how pretty the city, most people aren't ready to make a cross-country move without a job lined up on the other end.

"Almost every time I ask people why they moved here they say for a job," Davis said. "We're drawing people to the area for jobs. And that's to be expected, because places like Volkswagen and Wacker can't fill all their jobs with native Chattanoogans."

The Chattanooga region supports a workforce of about 342,000 people, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The area's unemployment rate sat at about 7.5 percent in April, which is worse than Knoxville and Nashville's rates.

But the number of businesses started annually in Chattanooga has been rising steadily during the last five years, according to the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. And that's another factor that's starting to tug young people to Chattanooga. With a handful of business incubators and a smaller market, the city has built a fledgling reputation for being entrepreneur-friendly.

Entrepreneur Magazine highlighted Chattanooga as a hot spot for launching new businesses in a May article, and the Scenic City was listed as the top city with a population between 100,000 and 250,000 for young entrepreneurs in 2013 by Under30CEO, an online magazine.

Local business accelerators such as the Co.Lab continue to attract talent from across the United States and the world. This year's Gig Tank at the Co.Lab -- a program for tech start-up businesses -- has competitors from places such as Bulgaria, California and Princeton University.

That entrepreneurial support was what kept 2010 Covenant College graduate Drew Belz in town.

"I was not planning at all to spend my 20s in Chattanooga," he said. "I was LA-bound, big-city obsessed and figured I'd see myself out West shortly after graduation."

But then he had the chance to start Fancy Rhino, a creative agency that specializes in video strategy, Web platform design and branding. And he realized that staying in Chattanooga was best for the company.

"Chattanooga was so receptive to new business," said Belz, who is married to Times Free Press reporter Kate Harrison Belz. "We found ourselves propped up on every side, whereas in another market it's last man standing and you find yourself attacked on all sides."

Now he and his partner employ 15 people and work out of a downtown office. But, he adds, whether he stays in the Scenic City beyond the next five years will depend on how well the city lives up to its promises.

"There's a lot of hype right now, and the town doesn't really live up to that hype yet," he said. "I think that we're in a testing ground for Chattanooga, and over the next five to 10 years, we're going to need to see a lot of the promises that are made about Chattanooga come true in terms of it being a cultural center."

Uphill Climb

Chattanooga has come a long way from the jump-ship days of the '70s and '80s, Sudderth said. But the city still has miles to go.

"The thing about development is that you can't ever stop," he said. "You might be able to take a deep breath, but that's about it. You still have to continue to provide those things that young people and older people who've moved here want."

The No. 1 factor for Hamilton County residents in determining quality of life is consistent public safety, according to the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies. That poses a problem for the Scenic City because Chattanooga accounts for most of the region's crime. About 75 percent of all violent crime in Hamilton County happens within the city limits, the Ochs Center reported in 2010.

Crime was a factor that pushed Leah Carlson, a 2013 graduate of Lee University, to live in Cleveland, Tenn., instead of Chattanooga.

"I do like Chattanooga a lot," she said. "But I think there are just certain areas of Chattanooga that are a little scary because you hear of the violence rates increasing."

Beyond crime, another major challenge for the region will be providing high-quality elementary and high school education, Sudderth said. Chattanooga's school system is divided by a grand canyon -- with poverty-ridden, poorly performing schools on one side and affluent, high-performing schools on another.

The canyon is a symptom of a city that still maintains major socioeconomic, health and crime disparities, the Och's Center's 2013 State of the Chattanooga Region education report said.

"One of the things the city has got to do is work diligently in the county as well to make sure we have an educational system that is attractive," Sudderth said.

That's important to dad-of-two Campbell, too.

"The education system does a fair job with what they have, but I do believe it needs some vast improvement," he said. "I have a kid with ADHD and dyslexia, and it's hard."

The city also will need to offer opportunities for 20-somethings to volunteer and contribute civicly, Davis said.

"If you want to retain young professionals, you have to give them the opportunity to grow both in their personal lives and professional," he said. "When you're invested in things, you have more of a reason to stay."

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said he thinks the city will be able to retain young workers and overcome issues such as high crime and education shortfalls.

"As someone who grew up here and chose to return after school, I know that young people want to live in a vibrant city where streets are safe, their kids have the chance to achieve, and economic development opportunities reach every neighborhood," he said.

The mayor conceded that "the current state of crime in Chattanooga is unacceptable."

"That's why I've developed a comprehensive public safety plan, which includes innovative initiatives and new approaches that have proven to be successful in other cities," he said.

In the next few years, whether young professionals flood into Chattanooga then pack up and leave or stay and raise families will depend largely on the city's efforts to continue to improve infrastructure, curb crime and provide job opportunities.

But either way, they're coming, Sudderth said.

"I think Chattanooga is still undiscovered," he said. "We're on the beginning wave of people who are looking for a lifestyle and don't want a two-hour commute and traffic jams."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at or 423-757-6525.