Eichenthal: Place matters

Eichenthal: Place matters

Chattanooga, Hamilton County should think regionally

January 4th, 2009 in Opinion Columns

David R. Eichenthal

Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies

Over the past five months, the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies has issued a series of seven reports on early childhood, the environment, education, crime, health, housing and the economy. All the reports are online at www.ochscenter.org, but let me try to sum up our findings: Place matters.

Place matters because after years of decline, Chattanooga is a growing center of a growing region. And with the coming of Volkswagen, that growth is likely to continue.

Chattanooga - with a population of more than 160,000 - now centers a county of more than 300,000 residents and a metropolitan area of more than a half-million. More than 1 million people now live in the 28-county area within 50 miles of Chattanooga. For most of these residents of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, Chattanooga is their closest urban center.

The lives of the farmer in the Sequatchie Valley, the single mother in East Chattanooga, the senior citizen in East Brainerd, the 20-something downtown and the family in Catoosa County may seem unconnected. But we know that they all depend on the services of and support an economy centered in Chattanooga and Hamilton County.

Thinking regionally matters a lot when it comes to addressing challenges that cut across our area. As Mayor Ron Littlefield recently noted, reducing our carbon footprint requires a regional solution. So much of the environmental challenge that we face locally is the result of low-density land-use development and transportation challenges across our metropolitan area.

But there is a value to thinking regionally about other issues as well.

Hamilton County schools provide education to just over half of the children in the region's sixcounty area. But to the extent that future employers, investors and residents look to the quality of our schools, they look to what is happening in Dade, Catoosa, Walker, Sequatchie and Marion County schools as well. The education of the children in those counties is just as relevant to our region's economic future.

Nearly half of all admissions to Hamilton County hospitals are residents from outside Hamilton County, with almost 20 percent coming from Georgia. In Sequatchie County, nearly one in two residents participates in some form of publicly subsidized health insurance, and there are only two primary care physicians. It is hard to understand the challenges of providing health care without understanding this truly regional dynamic.

Place also matters because even within Hamilton County, there are real differences as to how we and our children live.

We know that there are areas within Hamilton County where crime is rare, the vast majority of children attending public schools are excelling, where people feel - and are - healthy and where poverty, teen pregnancy and foreclosures are unknown events in a life that squares with what many of us would think of as the American dream.

But we also know that too many people live in a Hamilton County and Chattanooga that few of us would want to live in.

Five subregions, which we define as Ridgedale/Oak Grove/Clifton Hills, South Chattanooga, Downtown, Amnicola/East Chattanooga and Bushtown/Highland Park, are home to just 14 percent of the county's population.

While recent efforts at revitalization have improved neighborhoods within some of these areas, too often these residents are left behind.

These subregions are where nearly half of robberies and drug violations and nearly 40 percent of all aggravated assaults in the county occur.

In every one of these subregions, more than 90 percent of children attending public school are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch because of their household income. Based on the most recent data, more than 30 percent of residents in each of these areas live in poverty. In one subregion, nearly half of the residents live in poverty.

Over the past six years, more than two-thirds of births in every one of these subregions was to a single mother. In one subregion, 85 percent of all children born were to a single mom. In every one of these subregions, more than one in five births were to a teenage mother, and more than 45 percent of children were born to mothers without a high school degree.

More than a third of public school students in these areas failed to attend school regularly, based on state attendance standards. And, not surprisingly, the children of these subregions were among the poorest performers on thirdgrade reading tests.

These same subregions are among the areas with the lowest property values, the most subprime lending and the highest rates of foreclosure. And they have among the highest rates of residents reporting fair or poor health, no health insurance, smoking, obesity, sexually transmitted diseases and overall mortality.

For the people who live in these parts of Hamilton County, place matters a lot.

As we begin 2009, there is an opportunity for the public and policy makers to engage in a conversation on how the different and disparate parts of our region can work better together. At the same time, it is important to recognize that our region is only as strong as our ability to make every part of it a place where all of us would want to live.

David R. Eichenthal is president and CEO of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies in Chattanooga. He can be reached via e-mail at deichenthal@ochscenter.org.