Gerber: Chattanooga's story is worth retelling

Gerber: Chattanooga's story is worth retelling

October 28th, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

A year from now, 800 journalists from across the world will spend five days fanning across the area's mountains and rivers and visiting our factories and plants.

The Society of Environmental Journalists is bringing its annual conference to Chattanooga.

It's the first time the group has returned to the same city in the 23 years it's been holding conferences.

In 1998, SEJ members learned how Chattanooga recast itself from a dirty industrial town to a clear-skies destination after Walter Cronkite branded Chattanooga "the most polluted city in the U.S."

The journalists learned how the city cleaned up its air. They heard that the Tennessee Aquarium transformed not only the city's skyline but also its economy. They rode in electric shuttles that saved diesel fuel and spewed no fumes. They walked alongside Chattanooga Creek, the site of a then-half finished Superfund cleanup.

Since then much has happened that continued the city's momentum.

This time around, the journalists attending the conference will hear about the growing number of folks who come here to climb, paddle, trail run and cave. They will visit the Volkswagen plant, the only auto factory in the world to gain platinum LEED certification.

They will learn how Chattanooga is fixing its stormwater problem and recycling unused and decrepit industrial sites. They will hear about local programs to understand and cope with climate change.

And they discuss issues we still struggle with: sprawl and tough decisions about who gets water from the Tennessee River.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the Chattanooga Times Free Press will sponsor the conference.

A host of other companies and organizations also are supporting the conference, including Volkswagen, EPB, BlueCross BlueShield, WRBC Channel 3, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Benwood Foundation and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

Times Free Press reporter Pam Sohn, former Tennessean reporter Anne Paine and UTC professor David B. Sachsman will co-plan the agenda.

In her 35 years as a journalist, Sohn has covered many environmental issues, including the dredging of Chattanooga Creek, brownfields reclamation, nuclear plant concerns and the 2008 ash spill in Kingston, Tenn.

Sachsman, who holds George R. West, Jr., chair of excellence in communication and public affairs, is known for his research in environmental communication and environmental risk reporting.

Sohn and Paine recently spent six days at this year's conference in Lubbock, Texas, a place unlike this region. It's flat, brown and very dry.

Sohn said she hopes the journalists will learn this about our city: "That Chattanooga, like many cities, has plenty of environmental problems but also has plenty of determination to work on them."

The society's first visit to Chattanooga in the 1990s is credited with helping create buzz about the city and spreading its story of renewal. Many of the group's members went home and reported on the city's revival in newspapers and TV stations across the globe.

SEJ was created in 1990 with the goal of strengthening journalism that helps the public better understand environmental issues. The group has about 1,500 members in the United States, Canada, Mexico and 27 other countries. Their reporting reaches millions.

That's a lot of people who again may hear Chattanooga's story.

"It's a story of a city that has come back from urban decay and how we did it," Sachsman said. "I think that is a good story to tell."

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at Send suggestions to