For partners in growth

For partners in growth

October 16th, 2011 in Opinion Times

County officials failed to respond to Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's initial request to consider consolidation of basic urban services throughout the county. Then they thumbed their nose at his next proposal for county officials to seek a county government charter, which would allow the county government itself to create useful municipal-style ordinances and urban services to serve pending growth.

So now, Littlefield has called for county government and eight of the county's other nine municipalities (tiny, landlocked Ridgeside was reasonably excluded) to join in amending the county's urban growth plan. His goal is essentially the same: to foster orderly growth, tax equity and the more cost-efficient provision of basic urban infrastructure and services to meet the needs of the county's increasing urban population.

Forced toward annexation

His latest proposal would achieve that goal by amending the countywide 2001 urban growth boundary areas of municipalities in order to allow broader annexation as the county's projected population growth, and consequent pressure on urban infrastructure and services, builds on the borders of Chattanooga and other municipalities.

Littlefield is on the right track. The existing growth boundary areas did not -- could not -- envision the pending wave of growth now at hand.

Though the national economy may be slow for another few years, the area groups working on regional planning reasonably believe Hamilton County's population could zoom over the next decade, from the current level of 340,00 to around 400,000 due to the community's projected manufacturing growth.

A 4-to-1 multiplier

Sen. Bob Corker, speaking last week to the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturing Association, essentially affirmed the logic for this outlook when he suggested there is "tremendous opportunity" for growth at Enterprise South. He was alluding to Volkswagen's pending decision on whether to double the car manufacturers' plant capacity here to accommodate a second car line, possibly Audi, or to add a new motor-and-transmission plant.

If either occurred, it would boost hiring, and add to the growth of ancillary supplier plants. That growth would come in tandem with the growth of Alstom, Amazon, Wacker Chemical in Cleveland and other new area businesses.

Economists generally attribute a four-to-one multiplier effect for manufacturing jobs due to the ripple effects of such jobs on service, retail and housing industries. So if VW grows its hiring from over 2,000 workers to, say, 4,000 or more, for example, the net increase would be four times that. Taking into account the other major new business and the additional growth spawned simply by the synergy of the creation of a major manufacturing hub -- accompanied by the improved rail, Interstate, service/retail, utilities and warehousing capacities -- the region's growth projections seem entirely feasible.

Growth of tens of thousands of new jobs, plus workers' families, would clearly boost demand for housing, classrooms, commercial centers, streets, sewers, and 24-7 fire and police departments. All that would transform the metro Chattanooga area. Yet the longer the county waits to initiate comprehensive planning for urban services in the unincorporated areas of the county, the greater will be the chances for explosive congestion and major gaps in urban services.

Default to dumb growth

Such planning should be already underway to map out where sewers, utilities, firehalls and classrooms will be needed. Otherwise, unplanned development will crowd out the opportunity for smart growth, and leave city and county governments forced to make expensive do-overs to correct the errors of dumb growth.

The only thing stopping smart growth from proceeding, however, is politics. County officials apparently had rather allow dumb growth -- and needless expense in the future to fix congestion and inadequate services, a la the current East Brainerd Road widening and the expansion of the undersized/overcrowded new East Hamilton Middle/High School -- than to respond to Littlefield's attempts to spur them into action. That may be especially true with his latest proposal, which would essentially expand the areas where Chattanooga, Collegedale and Soddy-Daisy might reasonably want to annex.

County government's political vision on this issue will rest on the notion that opening the door to more annexation would harm their chances for reelection next year.

County leaders' options

If that's the case, they would serve well by finally considering Littlefield's first two proposals. Securing a charter government proposal and referendum would provide the county government plenty of authority to meet urban needs and demand for municipal-style services (i.e., professional 24/7 fire departments, garbage service and authority to hang traffic signals). Consolidating such services with other municipalities would help serve the same purpose.

What will not help -- indeed, what will hurt the county badly -- is sitting still and doing nothing to prepare for the wave of growth that is bound to occur. County officials' smug, self-centered, irresponsible, do-nothing politics should not be an option, even if it means deigning to work hand-in-hand with Littlefield to meet their public responsibilities.