Building on Chattanooga: An exercise in weighing our strengths and weaknesses

Building on Chattanooga: An exercise in weighing our strengths and weaknesses

December 8th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Andy Berke

Andy Berke

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

For seven months, Chattanooga mayor Andy Berke has been focused on what he sees as the major challenges facing the city: crime (especially shootings), education, economic needs and budgeting.

This month, he is quietly broadening the workload with an initiative to tackle six more issues. And he is delegating by appointing six task force committees that will spend the next 12 months on these additional challenges and opportunities: outdoors and sports; entertainment and attractions; technology, high-speed Internet and entrepreneurialism; arts; housing; and the city's downtown.

Berke calls the initiative "Chattanooga Forward," and he says it builds on the city's tradition of public involvement and our past efforts with "visioning" sessions.

But he's firm in saying this is not just visioning.

"I wanted more practical plans," he said "I've heard around the city that people are ready for action."

The committees will be comprised of citizens with expertise in the subject they are working on. The members will be from diverse backgrounds, ages, races, neighborhoods and experience. Some will be stakeholders and some will be people who have not felt they were part of the visioning and planning processes in the past.

"We will ask them to take ownership of these ideas and come forward with plans that are realistic, that are sustainable and that will move our community forward," Berke said last week. "We expect to have these ideas, with bold action steps, by next November."

The initiative, at its heart, is an effort to identify Chattanooga's strengths and weaknesses in order to capitalize on the assets and improve the rest.

The mayor ticked off examples.

"If you were a business you would think about what your unique brand is," he said. "Certainly outdoors and sports is a central component of our identity. We have Ironman [triathlon], U.S. pro-cycling, Head of the Hooch [rowing], River Rocks - wonderful events that bring lots of people to our city. But we also need to connect up Chattanoogans to recreational activities and encourage them to use these resources we have. So I want to see plans, ideas and action steps to continue to improve Chattanooga's brand while making sure our citizens have the best chance to take advantage of it.

The same is true in a slightly different way of entertainment, he says. Chattanooga is not one of the nation's many cities with a decaying urban core. We already have some wonderful restaurants, but how do we take the next step in revitalizing our entertainment brand?

Of the technology, Gig and entrepreneurialism panel, the challenge is for task force members to find ways to optimize the city's resource of super-fast fiber optic Internet connections for a world in which automation and computers will increasingly drive what happens in businesses - and where the workers will contribute primarily through innovation, ideas and creativity.

"Chattanooga Forward helps us put together plans and actions steps to drive our transformation," Berke said.

The mayor has quietly introduced this plan - no press conferences, just conversations. But the initiative itself is hardly quiet.

If the task force members are half as bold as the intent, Chattanooga should be served well. Come this time next year, it will be a matter of streamlining priorities, finding the larger public consensus and allocating funds.