Cook: Don't be so cool in 2018

VML Creative Director Betsy Jemas begins her paddle Thursday, July 20, 2017, on the Tennessee River at the Market Street Bridge in Chattanooga, Tenn. A team of three from VML participated in various outdoor events in the Chattanooga area as part of a new Snapchat channel that the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development created to attract people to the many things to do in Tennessee.

In 2017, we were cool. Really cool.

We hosted Ironman. Four times.

We continued the swanky rebuild of downtown, with nearly $1 billion invested in downtown commercial space, condos and hotels, including a new Westin with a $2,500 suite.

We began the renovation of Miller Park.

There are new bike lanes, vegetarian restaurants and more than 50,000 Airbnb rentals. In 2017, so many people gushed.

photo David Cook

"One of America's most underrated cities," Money Inc. proclaimed.

"The unique Southern city remains an underrated pleasure to explore," Food and Wine promised.

"Super cool," declared Expedia.

On Christmas Eve, I spoke to a man from England who moved here to open his consulting firm.

"You could have gone anywhere in the world," I said.

"Yes," he acknowledged. "And we came here."

There are many stories like this and many reasons why: the glitzy, reborn downtown, the inviting water and land around us, the Tennessee Aquarium, the Gig. There's also precise strategy: the city contracts with a public relations firm - Development Counsellors International - to, among many things, invite journalists to travel here and write about Chattanooga's coolness.

"A packed itinerary of 14-hour whirls through the city's brightest and shiniest locales, where every detail is planned down to the minute, and interviews with people not on the tour are discouraged," writes Valerie Vande Panne.

Her essay is called "Welcome to the MultiMillion Dollar Business of Selling U.S. Cities" and should be required reading for the hidden ways we promote and peddle our coolness.

"Twenty-five to 50 percent of my job is sales," Mayor Andy Berke - definitely a cool politician - told Panne. "The marketing is done by the Chamber. I'm the person they wind up to talk to people like you."

Just like other U.S. cities, Chattanooga is fighting a cold war for tourist dollars; our unending rebranding and remarketing is a hamster wheel of attention. Come here. Play here. Stay here. Our downtown's become a perpetual host, a never- sleeping geisha to tourists and investors.

I wonder: When did the rest of us agree to this?

Is this a foundation of sand? What happens when the money dries up?

And are we losing our city in the process?

Here's why being so cool is actually uncool.

-Cities aren't meant to be marketed.

The purpose of a city isn't tourism. It's to provide life and health to its citizens. In the bidding war for shiny, happy people - that's what tourism is - city government diverges from its real purpose, which is not, as Berke said, "sales." A stone's throw from the Westin are forgotten homeless camps, now torn down, and College Hill Courts, with government housing that's the exact opposite of a $2,500 hotel suite. Where's the marketing campaign for them?

-Cities aren't meant to be monetized.

Our outdoor tourism operates on the principle that more use is better. It monetizes land, sky and water. More climbers equal more money. More mountain bikers equal more money. But what about the impact on the land? What's the tipping point for our rocks and waters and trails? How much is too much? The Chamber doesn't seem interested in these questions.

-Cities aren't meant to be branded.

In the pursuit of coolness, authenticity is lost. And authenticity is the lifeblood of a place.

"It appears we're becoming a hybrid of Dallas and Portland," one friend said. "Yuck."

My friend? He's an old bar-stool buddy. Like some of you, he's not so sure our urban coolness is an altogether good thing.

"Think about how tiresome a hipster is, then multiply that to city scale," he continued. "It's a marketing campaign that ultimately will alienate a lot of Chattanoogans."

-Most of all, cities aren't supposed to lie.

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This fairytale version of our city glosses over so much of what actually happens in Chattanooga. The blood and violence. The sweat and suffering. The tears and grim misery. There are a thousand stories like this: I heard recently of one downtown family living without water. They have to squat in the backyard. They drink from their neighbor's tap. Apparently, their landlord won't lift a finger.

In 2018, let's be less cool.

And more honest.


And wise.

"I have a friend in Asheville who lives there and never goes downtown because it's such a circus," my friend concluded. "If Chattanooga goes that route, we will have killed the goose that laid the golden egg."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at [email protected] or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.