Innovation gets home of its own in special downtown Chattanooga district

Mike Bradshaw, executive director of Co.Lab, right, speaks during a press conference about the Chattanooga Innovation District Tuesday at the Development Resource Center as Ken Hayes, president and CEO of Enterprise Center, County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Mayor Andy Berke, from left, listen.

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photo Downtown Chattanooga's planned Innovation District.

Economic promise spreads out like a bull's-eye on the city's grid of streets and buildings, over the start-ups and investors and the electric company that feeds superspeed Internet service to all of them.

The Innovation District -- its coming announced boldly last spring, its makings kept quiet until Tuesday -- will span a circular 140 acres, anchored by the Edney Building in downtown Chattanooga.

It will be the first innovation district for a midsized city, according to local officials, a place where new companies are born, talented creatives carve out compelling ideas and existing businesses expand.

As if to prove the point, Co.Lab, the nonprofit business accelerator that has juiced so many of the city's start-ups, expects to relocate to the building in April. It will be the anchor tenant.

"You've got to move fast," beamed Co.Lab Executive Director Mike Bradshaw, after Tuesday's announcement. "I'm moving ahead!"

The timeline to get things up and running is short: Private developers are expected to have ownership of the building by Feb. 24.

"It's ambitious," said Ken Hays, president of the Enterprise Center, the nonprofit organization that Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke in April 2014 charged with spearheading the project.


The Enterprise Center in November entered an agreement to buy the Edney Building from the Tennessee Valley Authority for $1.3 million. It's under contract now. On Monday, a request for proposals for the building went out; as soon as the Enterprise Center owns Edney, it will be sold to a private developer. Hays said several are interested. The minimum price must be $1.35 million to cover the cost of Enterprise's purchase and $50,000 in due diligence expenses.

Architects are working on the space. The 10-floor building at 1100 Market St., which was built around 1950, shouldn't need much work, Hays said.

For now the district is just the geographic area designated, which includes EPB, Society of Work, Lamp Post Group, Causeway and Coyote Logistics, to name a few. It also includes locations that are being redeveloped, among them the Fleetwood Building on 11th Street owned by SwiftWing Ventures and the Fidelity Trust buildings on Cherry Street.

A task force will form in coming weeks to determine whether additional elements, such as tax incentives, should be structured for the district to lure new businesses, Hays said.

Like Enterprise South, home to the Volkswagen plant and Amazon, the district should drive growth, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said.

"It's another economy that we're really excited about," he said. "People will be able to come here and create jobs."

photo Mayor Andy Berke speaks during a press conference about the Chattanooga Innovation District at the Development Resource Center.

Of course, that's happening already with Chattanooga's start-ups. But putting an address on something clearly called an innovation district gives it heft, Co.Lab's Bradshaw and others said.

"I think sometimes you need a visible sign, a visible place," said Charlie Brock, CEO of Launch Tennessee, the public-private partnership dedicated to supporting high-growth entrepreneurs. Launch announced Tuesday that investments in early-stage companies throughout the state last year totaled $276 million, 31 percent more than in 2013. East Tennessee, including Chattanooga, accounted for about $28 million of that.

Having a hub also helps with serendipitous collisions, Brock said, people of like minds running into each other and encouraging one another.

Officials didn't offer projections for the number of jobs they aim for the district to create. Boston's innovation district says it added 200 new companies with 5,000 new jobs in its first three years.

Co.Lab plans to hold all of its events in the Edney Building, including GigTank. It also expects to offer short-term leases to start-ups, fledgling companies that aren't far enough along to be ready for the city's incubator.

For now, though, about 170 TVA employees and contractors work in the Edney Building and are being relocated to the main Chattanooga office complex. After the sale, TVA plans to lease a few floors on a short-term basis. TVA spokeswoman Gail Rymer said the sale of the building, which TVA has used for nearly 65 years, is part of its overall corporate downsizing as the agency cuts its annual operating costs by $500 million.

Staff writer Dave Flessner contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Mitra Malek at or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter @mitramalek.