Greater Chattanooga area's population expected to surge by hundreds of thousands by 2055

photo Construction continues on the Cabela's shopping complex located next to the Costco off Cloud Springs Road.
photo Traffic flows on Alabama Highway over I-75 in Ringgold. The state is planning a $23 million upgrade of the highway.
photo The Ringgold city limit sign in North Georgia on May 9, 2014.

ABOUT THRIVE 2055What: A three-year planning project that's due to expire in a yearWhere: The 16-county, tri-state region of Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northeast AlabamaGoals: Improve education and training, improve regional transportation and education, coordinate regional economic development, and care for the region's natural treasures.More info: thrive2055.comPUBLIC MEETINGA June 5 "input incubator" meeting from 6-8 p.m. at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center will feature a presentation by Portland, Ore.-based urban and regional planning consultants, Fregenose and Associates, which will use its Envision Tomorrow software for this region so planners can use it to do such things as test and refine transportation plans.

Catoosa County, Ga., is projected to more than double in population by 2055 and grow from about 64,000 residents now to 140,000 then - an increase of 119 percent.

The county on Interstate 75 south of Chattanooga that's largely a bedroom community is expected to see the biggest percentage bump in population over the next 40 years in the 16-county, tri-state region of Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama.

It's not alone, though. Meigs County, Tenn., is supposed to have twice as many residents in 2055, and population growth of more than 60 percent is anticipated in DeKalb County, Ala.; Dade County, Ga.; and Sequatchie County, Tenn.

Hamilton County is projected to see the most new residents -- 98,000 -- though that's only a 29 percent increase because the county now has some 337,000 residents, the most in the region.

Overall, the 16-county region should grow by about 400,000 residents, from about 1 million now to 1.4 million.

That's according to Thrive 2055, a private-public effort aimed at helping area officials deal with growth by raising awareness and getting officials and residents to talk about issues across county and state lines.

Meigs County Mayor Garland Lankford thinks Thrive 2055's growth projections are on the money for the county he's called home his entire 69 years.

"In 40 years, it will be double, easy," Lankford said of Meigs' population of about 12,000 residents. "There's a possibility of doing that in the next 10 years."

Retirees and people who telecommute to work are drawn north of Chattanooga, Lankford said, to Meigs' laid-back lifestyle and forested hills alongside the Tennessee River.

"The Chattanooga umbrella is extending itself out unbelievably," he said.

Growth brings opportunity, costs

Atlanta-based Paran Homes must see potential here because it has bought 50 vacant lots in the Collegedale and Ooltewah area near Enterprise South Industrial Park, home to the Volkswagen assembly plant and Amazon warehouse.

"It makes perfect business sense," Collegedale Mayor John Turner said.

Collegedale expects growth, the mayor said, partly because it's so close to jobs at Enterprise South, McKee Foods -- the maker of Little Debbie products -- and a new, roughly 200-acre business park just up Interstate 75 near Cleveland, Tenn.

"We're ready for it," Turner said of the growth. "We've been making plans for it for probably eight years or better."

The growth won't be without growing pains.

Collegedale drivers will have to contend with a Tennessee Department of Transportation project to widen Apison Pike to five lanes from Old Lee Highway to just east of Ooltewah-Ringgold Road that is expected to be complete in 2016.

"It's barely two lanes now," Turner said. "It's two with room to spit."

Farther south on I-75 in Ringgold, Ga., the seat of Catoosa County, the Georgia Department of Transportation next year will launch a $23 million construction project to improve two miles of state Route 151, also known as Alabama Highway, including an expansion of the bridge over the interstate from four lanes to seven.

Catoosa County officials have heralded recent commercial developments including a Costco warehouse store near I-75 and Cloud Springs Road that's already built and two projects on tap: a Cabela's outdoors big-box store near Costco and a new strip mall anchored by Marshalls near the Fort Oglethorpe Walmart on Battlefield Parkway.

But the growth comes at a price.

The developer behind the projects, Larry Armour, has gotten close to $7 million from county and city governments among the three projects: $4.5 million to move dirt and prepare the Costco site, $1.5 million to improve the Cabela's site and $700,000 to build a new intersection and traffic signal on Battlefield Parkway near the strip mall there.

Billions in investment spurs planning

Local leaders formed Thrive 2055 two years ago because they anticipated that regional growth would be spurred by $4 billion worth of investment since 2008 by such companies as VW, Amazon and Wacker, Thrive 2055 project manager Bridgett Massengill said.

Managed by the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, Thrive 2055 has a $3 million budget and a steering committee of more than 30 residents that reads like a "who's who" of leading regional businesses and organizations including BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Georgia Power, McKee Foods, Shaw Industries, Keller Williams Realty and the Lyndhurst Foundation.

"It's people that live here; it's people that work here; it's people that have grown up here and care about this place," Massengill said.

photo Construction continues on the new Marshalls/HobbyLobby/Ross shopping complex next to the Fort Oglethorpe Walmart in North Georgia.

Despite its high-profile supporters, the effort has no authority, Massengill said, and isn't designed to strong-arm anyone.

Thrive 2055 participants just hope to create a consensus about the direction the region should take.

"We're trying to coordinate and get people to talk," she said.

Meanwhile, others would like to see planning include an effort to slow sprawl and stem greenhouse gas emissions.

"We don't need to sprawl out in the greenfields," said Cynthia Watson, who favors "in-fill" development of vacant urban lots. She and her husband, architect Stroud Watson, downsized and moved to a small residence across from the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel so they could take advantage of public transportation.

"We all need to walk more, and we all need to get out of our cars," she said.

Of course, no one can say with certainty whether the population projections will come to pass or what big-picture changes may come in the next 40 years.

"No one knows," Massengill said. "You can look back 40 years ago, and I-75 was not completed. Forty years ago, we did not have the Internet."

She compared planning for the future to playing a game of chess.

"You don't know what a chessboard is going to look like at the end," she said. "But you have to strategize."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@times or via or at 423-757-6651.