For weeks, the developers behind Chattanooga Village - the promising mixed-use development proposed off state Highway 153 near Boy Scout Road - have been under attack for their efforts to bring jobs, homes and opportunity to Hixson.
Opponents of the project claim that Chattanooga Village will be an eyesore, create a traffic bottleneck and, due to potential stormwater runoff problems, become a menace to the environment.
The only problem is that the concerns simply aren't credible.
According to documents submitted in hopes of receiving zoning approval to go forward with project and recent statements by Chattanooga Village developers, each of those issues has been addressed.
The stormwater concerns will be alleviated by a state-of-the-art drainage system that far exceeds standards required by Chattanooga, according to Duane Horton of Scenic Land Company, the development company behind the project. Improvements to Highway 153 are expected to occur before the project is completed, and Chattanooga Village will include bicycle and pedestrian access to help reduce traffic congestion.
The project will maintain 67 acres of green space for recreation and relaxation. Further, according to current plans, Chattanooga Village won't even be visible from the highway. Environmentalists should be excited to learn that the project's developer constructed Chattanooga's first LEED-certified building.
Chattanooga Village simply won't bring the gloom and doom opponents predict. What the project will bring, however, are dozens of new retail stores, a quarter-million square feet of office space and 280 higher-end apartments - not to mention hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in economic growth - all things the Hixson area desperately needs.
So who would make baseless, unjustified attacks against a project that, from all indications, would be an environmentally sound, economically beneficial project for Hixson?
The answer, it seems, is CBL & Associates Properties Inc.
CBL purchased Northgate Mall in 2011 and is planning to renovate the facility this year. Apparently CBL is afraid of the competition that Chattanooga Village, which is slated to be built four miles north of Northgate Mall on Highway 153, could pose.
Instead of embracing Chattanooga Village as a partner in driving more shoppers to the Hixson area, or trying to battle for customers on a fair playing field, CBL decided to fight the development.
Since it would seem pathetic and transparent for CBL to start a smear campaign against the Chattanooga Village project, they apparently got someone else to do it.
Specifically, CBL hired Waterhouse Public Relations to drum up opposition to the Chattanooga Village project. Waterhouse, knowing that nothing riles up the public like an environmental crisis, decided to invent one. The PR firm then worked with the North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy to stir up opposition based on the phony fears about stormwater runoff, environmental damage and traffic flow issues.
A Waterhouse employee, Nathalie Strickland, has served as an unofficial liaison between Waterhouse and the Conservancy, helping the nonprofit environmental group develop its melodramatic "Don't Chop the Hilltop" messaging and sharpen efforts to oppose the Chattanooga Village project. In a recent public forum held by Chattanooga City Council Chair Pam Ladd, Strickland was seen planting questions critical of Chattanooga Village in the audience.
Further, Waterhouse has provided the Conservancy with promotional materials, including the "Don't Chop the Hilltop" T-shirts that Chattanooga Village opponents often wear to public meetings. Few who see the shirts could imagine that, ultimately, the people behind the opposition are the owners of Northgate Mall.
These tactics seem all in a day's work for Waterhouse. The PR firm is known for snatching thousands of dollars from taxpayers (with the assistance of inept elected officials) for seemingly simple PR projects.
Waterhouse worked with Mayor Ron Littlefield to collect more than $100,000 from Chattanooga taxpayers, in part, for a recycling awareness stunt called "Chattanooga Rocky, the Recycling Raccoon." The firm also snagged $98,000 from East Ridge residents for maintaining former Mayor Mike Steele's monthly blog and creating the city's Facebook page - two projects that most any 14-year-old in America would have done for a Taylor Swift CD and a Starbucks gift card.
While Waterhouse's latest effort doesn't involve pocketing fistfuls of taxpayers' hard-earned dollars, it may ultimately be much worse for Chattanooga area residents. The myths created about Chattanooga Village by CBL, Waterhouse and the Conservancy could ultimately kill off hundreds of jobs, cost the city and county millions in tax revenues and prevent the much-needed renaissance of the Hixson area.
Community discussions about legitimate environmental concerns are critical. If the Chattanooga Village development goes forward - and, for the future of Hixson and its residents, let's hope it does - local officials should work to ensure that the project maintains its commitment to ensuring the project is as environmentally friendly as possible.
Invented environmental concerns drummed up by a PR firm and a group of environmental extremists serving as a front for a potential competitor in hopes of dooming the Chattanooga Village project before ground is ever broken, however, are shameful and embarrassing.