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As the Scenic City's population continues to swell, Chattanooga is getting closer to edging out Knoxville as the most populous city in East Tennessee, U.S. Census Bureau estimates show.
Chattanooga grew 2.15 percent from 2010 to 2012, reaching a population of 171,279 last year. Knoxville grew 1.85 percent to reach 182,200 residents.
But annexation by Chattanooga should bring in another 6,500 residents in coming months, said City Councilman Larry Grohn, which further will close the gap with Knoxville.
"Our home sales market and building market is starting to bounce back from the recession and looks pretty good," Grohn said.
Chattanooga's growth has outpaced the U.S. average over the past two decades, reversing shrinkage in the 1980s from declines in the textile, foundry and nuclear power industries.
A business-friendly philosophy has been a magnet for many, City Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem said. Still, city leaders always can do more to attract new residents, he added.
That includes a range of things from crime control to sprinkler regulations, Hakeem said, as well as maintaining the legendary livability that has garnered national recognition and brought life back to the formerly abandoned downtown corridor.
But Chattanooga's success hasn't happened in a vacuum, and it's not all happening downtown. Population growth also relies on large corporate investments in Bradley and Hamilton counties and North Georgia that support thousands of jobs.
"One of the things we don't do is we don't become complacent with the success. We have to sustain the momentum," Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said. "The recruitment has to stay as vibrant as it has been, and we have to continue to look out into the future."
Already, 2013 looks to be a better year for business than 2012, he said.
"Our site visits in the last five months are better than they were for the entire year last year," Coppinger said.
But growth also brings challenges, said John Bridger, executive director of the Regional Planning Agency. Unchecked growth can hurt if it outpaces the city's ability to deliver services, Bridger said.
Part of his task is to define what makes Chattanooga work as a city, creating a roadmap for both downtown and suburban growth.
"Our current plan is like a 1970s Ford Pinto that we basically patched and made these improvements, and at some point you've got to design a new car," said Bridger, who is working on a new long-term plan. "We can't just think about today; we've got to think about the lifestyles developing over the next 10, 20 years."
City Councilwoman Carol Berz is working to craft her own growth plan for the Brainerd Road area, which planners are rebranding as Midtown because of its location midway between the growing downtown and East Brainerd areas.
Now home to a large, educated population but held back by aging strip malls and vacant car lots, Midtown could serve as an example for how to bolster growth in stagnant parts of the city, Berz said.
"On Brainerd Road, this ugly street was created and the city gave away all its right of way, so we want to take that back to sidewalks, trees and bike paths," Berz said. "It's got to be our next growth area, almost like Virginia Highlands and Little Five Points in Atlanta."
Atlanta, for its part, grew at a brisk 5.59 percent, more than double Chattanooga's rate. But that's not necessarily a good thing, say officials like Grohn, who use Atlanta's sprawl as a punching bag and a case study in poor planning.
"You can't just look at that growth and say, 'yeah, it's all good,'" Grohn said. "For me, there's a huge difference between growth for growth's sake, and being very careful and having quality growth."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6315.