Votes in for Chattanooga Forward: Residents pick priorities at mayor's forum

Votes in for Chattanooga Forward: Residents pick priorities at mayor's forum

May 9th, 2014 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

Sylvia Phillips places a sticker next to a transportation issues written on a notepad to indicate its importance to her Thursday during a public forum called Chattanooga Forward hosted by Mayor Andy Berke at Rivermont Elementary School. The forum gave community members the chance to discuss possibilities in priority areas of city business.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Mayor Andy Berke, left, speaks with Molly Sasse, right, and Don McDowell on Thursday during a public forum called Chattanooga Forward hosted by Berke at Rivermont Elementary School. The forum gave community members the chance to discuss possibilities in priority areas of city business.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

The colorful stickers circled the idea written on a large, lined sheet of paper at Thursday night's public forum.

"Enhance transportation and parking options downtown," it was stated in a black, permanent marker.

Those stickers represented each time someone voted for one of the multiple suggestions that ranged from improving downtown to enhancing entertainment options and affordable housing at Mayor Andy Berke's first public forum on Chattanooga Forward. That's the name Berke gave to represent six task forces he appointed late last year.

About 175 Chattanoogans crammed into Rivermont Elementary School's cafeteria on Hixson Pike on Thursday night looking to give their input. Residents' reaction to the scene ranged from excitement to confusion as folks tried to figure out the amount of ideas in the room that they could vote on.

Sally Morrow, an intern architect, put her sticker next to the proposal for the city to establish a baseline for affordable housing in the city.

Sabrina Daniel, a Red Bank former teacher, wants the city to partner with Hamilton County to ensure every elementary school has an arts teacher.

"I think it's important since some children express themselves that way," she said.

Fred Flint, who lives near downtown, wants more focus on filling empty downtown office spaces.

Nearly a hundred people voted for an idea to create a mayor's initiative to promote health and wellness.

Some at the meeting criticized the format.

"Things were dumbed down," said Justin Strickland, a local hotel manager. "I thought this was a public forum."

Other proposals focused on more general concepts. Yet all the concepts in the six target areas -- arts; entertainment; sports and outdoors; downtown; housing; and tech, gig and entrepreneurship -- were discussed in task force meetings made up of community leaders, entrepreneurs, attorneys and city employees.

After two more public meetings, the groups will narrow their ideas to tangible lists and action plans to give to Berke, who said these are areas that are important to many residents.

The deadline for the ideas is Nov. 1. So far one idea has come to fruition. The tech, gig and entrepreneurship task force helped revamp the city-backed Enterprise Center to focus on ways to promote Chattanooga's gigabit-per-second Internet service. Local developer Ken Hays, the former president of River City Co., was picked to head the center.

Other task forces are further behind, and members said they had split off into smaller groups within the larger one to talk about more specific ideas.

Berke promised the crowd that there would be more tangible results from these groups.

"Chattanooga Forward is about great ideas but more important than ideas, it's about action," he said. "If we don't translate these ideas into action then we really haven't done what our responsibility is."

Berke also said that everyone who attended had the option to fill out a survey and submit original ideas that would be considered. Those questionnaires will be given back to the task forces this summer after the third public meeting.

Officials who led the task forces said they were excited by the turnout and interest.

Lisa Maragnano, executive director of the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority, said she hopes the interest in public transportation and parking will reinforce the need to make improvements.

"I'm thrilled," she said pointing to the stickers surrounding the need for more downtown parking.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.