Chattanooga has emerged as a place where college graduates want to stay and live, rather than flee from in order to seek better opportunities or to start businesses, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said Monday.
"Years ago, we had so many young people be educated here but leave. They were our greatest asset," he said during a meeting with small-business people. "I think that with a lot of people's effort and involvement, we've largely turned that around."
Chattanooga is a city where "people want to be and thrive ... where young people want to create businesses," he said.
Corker, R-Tenn., said the city has focused on its outdoor assets, made downtown an interesting site, and put in infrastructure so people can pursue new ventures.
"The way the world is today, you can be in Chattanooga and do business anyplace in the world," the former Scenic City mayor said at the Society of Work work space on the 13th floor of the First Tennessee Bank building downtown.
He noted that he was in the Eastern European country of Estonia recently and was surprised at how many businesspeople there are connected with Silicon Valley companies in the U.S.
Kelly Fitzgerald, founder of the collaborative space, said she's trying to foster an environment in which people can learn from each other and help attract companies interested in Chattanooga.
She said Society of Work isn't just focused on technology but in other sectors as well.
"We need a well-rounded cultural environment ... to push forward," Fitzgerald said.
Corker said that Tennessee, not just Chattanooga, has embraced technology start-ups, though he cited the EPB's super high-speed Internet offering here.
"I'm glad people are able to build off the infrastructure here," he said.
One concern expressed to Corker was student debt keeping young people from becoming risk takers.
He said student loans are easy to come by and some people don't think about the future of having to pay the debt back, sometimes over decades.
"They check a box and sign up for debt and there's no thought of the payback," the state's junior senator said. "We need to do a better job on the front end."
Also, Corker said, so much available debt creates a situation where there's not much incentive for educational institutions to keep their costs down.
"We need to make sure we're putting downward pressure on educational costs," he said.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.