Growth, but not like Atlanta

Growth, but not like Atlanta

July 3rd, 2011 in Opinion Times

It has become axiomatic here that the arrival of Volkswagen, Wacker Chemical and Alstom, et al, has put the Chattanooga region on the national map for industrial growth. It also seems likely that EPB's introduction of its nation-leading, universal gigabit capacity - complemented by the area's natural resources and outdoor culture - will also soon attract both tech-geeks and computer-dependent startups.

Looking ahead, area planners, government and Chamber gurus reasonably believe the region will soon confront a rising wave of new economic growth that will fundamentally change the community over the next 10 years, and beyond. That, in turn, suggests the need for - indeed, demands - a comprehensive regional growth plan to guide growth and avoid our own version of Atlanta's dread disease - unmanaged sprawl and its attendant congestion and irrational misuse of valuable natural resources.

Goal-setting and trust

Creating an overarching growth plan, however, will be yeoman work, especially when it involves some 14 counties in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. Finding a consensus on the essential elements of regional growth planning may be a bit like herding cats. The three main centers of expected growth here - Chattanooga, Cleveland and Dalton - and the neighboring counties will have their own agendas, vested interests and political jockeying. Moving toward common goals will require the building of trust and new relationships.

A session here last week featuring some 20 nationally prominent planners, writers and thinkers on metropolitan and urban growth issues underscored the hard work of creating and implementing a viable growth plan. They also made it clear that despite a range of growth plans in the trendy star regions of the Northwest and the Mountain states, there is no ready plan on a shelf somewhere to serve as a reliable guidestar here.

Most agreed that knowing what we don't want our Chattanooga region to become is the easy part. Harder will be identifying and building a consensus around the specific elements of the community that we want to protect, preserve and nurture as growth occurs.

In one sense, it is plainly practical to say that we need to plan for transportation arteries, utility infrastructure and efficient land use before we let random development get ahead of the growth curve.

It just makes good sense, after all, to coordinate plans for sewers, utilities, transportation corridors, classrooms, greenspace, pedestrian ways, commercial clusters and firehalls - oh, and parks, playgrounds, protected wetlands and streams and agricultural lands - before we rashly unleash developers to chop rural farmlands and forests into islands of new subdivisions, and leave them stranded from all of the above and inching along suddenly overloaded country lanes to employers and necessary amenities while waiting for a re-do of basic infrastructure.

But without agreement and actual implementation in the near future of land-use planning, random development could easily mar any opportunity for smart, planned growth. That's particularly true in the unincorporated Ooltewah-Apison-Birchwood areas above and between Enterprise South and Volkswagen land and Cleveland's Wacker Chemical plant. It also applies to the Sale Creek area above Soddy-Daisy. But that's just the suburban part of Hamilton County's individual piece of the larger growth-plan puzzle.

Many voices to be heard

Regional planning needs will be layered on top of planning, urban and land-use issues in individual counties. There will be a pressing need for creation of a regional transportation plan, and a regional plan for efficient education of workers for new industrial plants, and a willingness to share those plants. Chattanooga State and Dalton State College are already engaged in the worker education piece, but it will grow. Infrastructure, in the coordination and possible consolidation of some water utilities as well as transportation and sewer planning, will need to be addressed.

The political infrastructure has to find a common voice and some level of consolidation, goal setting and operational efficiency. Citizens and institutions must also have a vital role in the public planning process, both in visioning meetings to define their goals as growth occurs and through the political process.

At the moment, a group of representatives from regional governments, institutions and planning agencies are in the early stage of coordinating a way to kick off the regional planning process. Selection of a consulting consortium to guide regional growth planning will be the next step.

The hard work of planning can't begin too soon. But the lesson for the moment is that we can't just say we don't want Atlanta-type sprawl. We have to look further ahead than that.