Chattanooga: Fresh eyes, new vision

Chattanooga: Fresh eyes, new vision

New generation of leaders launches community wide conversation to set a course for the future

May 3rd, 2009 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

Staff Photo by Margaret Fenton Revitalization projects along Main Street have shaped the area dramatically, with unique restaurants and local artwork on every corner.

Staff Photo by Margaret Fenton Revitalization projects along Main...

First of two parts

When community leaders first dreamed about remaking the city's decaying downtown in the mid-'80s, Chattanooga was hemorrhaging jobs and young talent.

The industrial boom of years past was little more than a whimper. To many, revival of Chattanooga's riverfront - and the bargeload of dollars it would take to do it - wasn't a top priority.

"It was a time of great economic stress," said Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, who worked as a city planner and economic recruiter at the time.

Twenty-five years and lots of work later, Chattanooga stands as a model of the renaissance South with its burgeoning arts community and thriving downtown. Many credit the turnaround in part to Vision 2000, the community visioning process in the 1980s that produced dozens of ideas for public officials and civic leaders to develop.

A new generation of leaders thinks the time is right for an even bigger examination of the region and its future.

"This is about looking to the future of your community, imagining what it could be like and helping the whole community get there," said Stephen Culp, 39, the founder of Smart Furniture.

Mr. Culp is among a diverse group of young professionals spearheading Stand, a revisioning effort its founders hope will lay the groundwork for dynamic community debate. The Lyndhurst Foundation is backing the effort.

"A second round of revisioning could prove the mettle of the community will," said Josh McManus, co-founder of CreateHere. "Revisioning will hopefully get the next generation of leaders involved with the future of the city. They haven't been called to action."

That call goes out today as organizers of Stand will meet this afternoon at CreateHere to launch a process they hope will generate thousands of answers to the question of what's next for Chattanooga.

New industries such as Volkswagen coming to the area lend some urgency to an inclusive, broad revisioning effort, organizers said. Without some careful thought and planning, Chattanooga may give way to suburban sprawl and overdevelopment.

The Stand initiative comes as Mr. Littlefield also has called for a public conversation on the future of the city. Issues he put on the table include consolidation of some government services, annexation and unification of water services.

Leaders take hope from Vision 2000, which helped propel Chattanooga out of decline in the '80s. They believe that if it can be done once, surely it can be done again.

"Chattanooga embraces thinking outside of the box," said Lisa Flint, 38, assistant dean at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga College of Business. "People before me set a good example for new people coming into the community. It showed people coming together could make a difference."


Stand organizers are pushing their revisioning initiative as something of a contest to help attract the young participants they say are needed.

Mr. McManus said the group hopes its effort will be the largest in the world, beating the visioning process in Calgary, a city of 1.5 million in Alberta, Canada, in 2005. About 19,000 people participated in that process.

"We are going for the biggest in a much smaller community, but we can do it," said Mr. McManus, who moved to Chattanooga 10 years ago.

Stand organizers said the new visioning will have less of an emphasis on downtown capital projects than there was in Vision 2000.

"The first visioning process was about the physical look," Mr. McManus said. Now "the attention turns to the people, quality of life, productivity and sustainability. It is more about movements than institutions."

Rather than bricks-and-mortar needs, the group wants to hear residents talk about concerns with schools, safety, neighborhoods and streets, said Stand organizer Wade Hinton, an attorney at Miller and Martin. He said he wants to make sure this visioning process involves people from all walks of life and from all parts of town.

"At some points (some people) may have felt left out," he said. "We will make sure that we go to people where they are. Not only people on Signal and Lookout Mountain will have their say. So for the next 25 years people can say, 'I played a role. I played a part in shaping the community.'"

Areas such as Alton Park and East Lake have been neglected as downtown received a face-lift, he said.

"Change has not occurred for everybody," he said.

Unlike the visioning in 1984, which gathered community input through a series of meetings, the Stand initiative will solicit opinions and ideas throughout the region from surveys distributed online, at businesses, churches, community organizations, schools, colleges.

Dawn Ford, 37, said the previous visioning focused on Chattanooga while the next one will take a more regional approach.

"We need to get more people to take ownership because Chattanooga is not just within the city limits," the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department emergency response coordinator said. "It is important that we hear from everybody in the region because interests and concerns vary depending on where you live."

Stand has no agenda, Ms. Flint said. The questions are straightforward: What do residents like about the Chattanooga region, what challenges need to be addressed and what can be done to meet those challenges.

"The questions are broad and generic," she said. "It will be interesting to see how people react to the questions. If people are screaming loudly about something we aren't aware of, hopefully we can do something to move it forward."


After Volkswagen announced plans to build a plant in Chattanooga last year, young community leaders were abuzz with talk of the future.

How would the large automaker's presence change the city? What would happen to neighborhoods and schools? Would Chattanooga be at risk for becoming just another overbuilt city such as Atlanta?

Mr. McManus remembers Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey in a speech telling residents to celebrate the win but challenging them to make it a beginning and not an end.

He and some other young leaders in the audience felt moved.

"We said, 'We hear the challenge' and started discussing things we could do," he said. "You had to question, is it time again for another revisioning?"

Pete Cooper, executive director of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, said the city's evolution over the last two decades is a strength on which a new visioning process can build.

"The culture of the city changed. We have momentum," he said.

Like Stand backers and Mr. Littlefield, he pointed to the need for young people to participate.

"We had a set of players in place that allowed the last 20 years of improvement to happen," he said. "We need a new set of eyes to make this work and the old guard is passing away."

Chattanoogans have proven they are up to the task, he said.

"Community visioning is not a spectator sport," he said. "This is a participatory city."

The largest challenge will be to raise the money to support projects and initiatives sparked by Stand, Mr. Cooper said.

Instead of approaching the wealthiest members of the community who support large community nonprofit organizations and helped build the Tennessee Aquarium, for example, Mr. Cooper said Stand must reach out to thousands of smaller donors.

"There is a need for a much wider group of fundraisers," he said. "There is enough money, but it will come in different ways. This time I think it will be more democratic, more diverse and we will have a larger funding base."

A new set of leaders and funders will emerge, he said.

"You don't have to have lived here 50 years or be rich to be a leader," Mr. Cooper said.