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In Chattanooga to test drive Volkswagen's new Passat, a New York writer for a national auto magazine has taken the city's downtown to task for what he called "the most incredible stench."
In a column in the September 2011 issue, Jamie Kitman, Automobile Magazine's New York bureau chief, said the smell that at times hits downtown "makes recommending the city as a vacation destination -- or as a place to locate your heavy industry -- problematic."
"One thing's certain: it's definitely not time for VW to launch its factory-delivery program here," wrote Kitman, an award-winning journalist who was in Chattanooga recently with other auto writers to critique the Passat.
Kitman won the 2009 National Magazine Award in the columns and commentary category. It is one of the country's most prestigious journalism competitions for magazines. Kitman's award, sponsored by the National Society of Magazine Editors, is believed to be the first of its kind won by an automotive magazine.
The city Wednesday blamed hot weather, dry conditions and aging sewer infrastructure for the odor, which waste officials have tried to mask in recent years by dropping large deodorant blocks into manholes.
"Chattanooga has spent millions of dollars correcting the myriad issues that are associated with a combined sewer system that dates to the early 1900s," said Richard Beeland, Mayor Ron Littlefield's spokesman. "Aging infrastructure presents unique challenges for every American city."
Kim White, who heads the nonprofit downtown redevelopment group The River City Co., said downtown work is never finished, but infrastructure would be on her list of things to fix.
"It's overdue," she said. "I definitely think it's one of our biggest challenges."
Josh Carter, manager at St. John's Restaurant downtown, said the eatery gets comments from patrons about the smell.
"It would be great if the city would address that odor," Carter said. "We have people coming to our city. It would make a better impression."
Jerry Stewart, the city's director of waste resources, said the problem is the city's storm and sanitary sewers lines are combined. When it's dry, he said, there's nothing to flush out the solids.
"Anyplace we get complaints, we tend to deal with it," he said.
Flushing out the sewers with water on a regular basis helps, he said, but gets expensive. One of the corrective options is to separate the sewers, Stewart said, but that would cost upwards of $400 million.
Kitman addressed about one-fourth of his column in the magazine, which boasts a readership of 4 million, to what he called downtown's "world-class pong" rather than the Passat.
"O death, where is thy string?" he wrote. " I know where your stink is."
Kitman said city economic development leaders ought to get busy and launch an initiative to fix the problem. Or if that's not affordable, spring for a "It Only Smells Bad At Night" or "What Reeks in Chattanooga Stays in Chattanooga" campaign, he wrote.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Kitman said he tried in a lighthearted way to raise the odor issue.
"I did have an otherwise good experience," he said. "The VW plant is great. Air quality is poor, and I say that, as an expert in poor air quality for a long time, I've never experienced that."
Ironically, the criticism comes after the city has lauded itself in recent years for improving air quality.
Local officials said Wednesday they don't think the odor adversely affects economic development or tourism.
Bob Doak, president of the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he doesn't hear much about the odor.
"We do surveys of conventioneers," he said. "We don't get the feedback" that it's an issue.
J.Ed. Marston, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's vice president of marketing, said the city has attracted millions of visitors and recruited billions of dollars worth of investment from companies.
"One of the symptoms of success is having detractors," he said. "This isn't the kind of story we want. The city is aware of the issue and working on it from the perspective of what's going to be best for the community at an appropriate cost."
Meanwhile, Bill Mish, the Doubletree Hotel's general manager, said he takes exception to a New Yorker telling Chattanooga it has an odor problem.
"Not everybody likes the smell of corned beef wafting through the air," he said.