Chattanooga turns again to visioning process to chart its course

Staff photo by Tim Barber Eastern Daylight Time brings an early sundown to the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga on Monday. A trace of rain for the date left water puddles along the 21st Century Riverfront at the Tennessee Aquarium's River Journey.
photo Christy Gillenwater, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, welcomes guests to the 40th Chattanooga Area Leadership Prayer Breakfast at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Tuesday, May 1, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Chattanooga needs a new economic vision if it is going to brace itself and survive the significant national and global trends threatening its future prosperity, according to a coalition of local leaders who announced Tuesday the launch of Velocity 2040, a new countywide planning process.

Thirty-four years ago an eclectic mix of Chattanooga leaders began working to restore a culture of hope that had been drained from the former industrial giant by decline, apathy and division, and in the process captured the nation's imagination with a one-of-a-kind community visioning process that seemed to put restoration within the grasp of any city, big or small.

"Visioning is a part of our DNA," Christy Gillenwater, CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, told a crowd of around 200 gathered at the Bessie Smith Hall - a physical product of the city's first visioning - for the announcement. "It has led us to the national scene."

That vision and the results, which spurred the nationally celebrated physical renaissance of Chattanooga's downtown, are still drawing visitors who seek a playbook for rebirth.

Those visits, and the questions that came with them, helped instigate this new visioning, said Gillenwater, who worked with Charles Wood, the chamber's vice president of economic development, to recruit both the city and Hamilton County mayors and all the city's major foundations to the effort. Right now Velocity 2040 has more than 100 partner organizations.

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Among the more than 100 employers and organizations that have signed on to support the new economic visioning process, Velocity 2040, are:Benwood FoundationBlueCross BlueShield of TennesseeChattanooga Area Chamber of CommerceChattanooga Metropolitan AirportCity of ChattanoogaCommunity Foundation of Greater ChattanoogaEPBHamilton CountyLa PazUnited Way of Greater ChattanoogaUrban League of Greater ChattanoogaBarge Design SolutionsCenter CentreChattanooga GasElder’s Ace HardwareFirst TennesseeFood CitySunTrust BankSynovusSource: Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce

Chamber officials said Chattanooga can't offer answers to the biggest question plaguing cities today: How can a city, like Chattanooga, end a culture that separates and stifles and instead stimulate economic mobility for all of its residents? Local education, crime, job, wage and housing data show there is much work to be done.

The business community began to grasp the dilemma when the chamber waded into education reform with Chattanooga 2.0 a few years ago, Wood said.

Vision 2000 and Revision 2000 produced communitywide plans that tackled far more than the physical look of downtown. Yet, when it came time for implementation, physical projects such as the Tennessee Aquarium garnered momentum and funding while others, such as education reform and neighborhood organizing, did not.

Over the years, a nuanced memory of the shared experience and the energy and social capital it created faded. Resentment over the priority shift that occurred after the 1984 visioning process has boiled under the surface for decades and still poses a challenge to leaders' agenda.

Leaders acknowledged as much on Tuesday when they emphasized time and time again that the integrity of this new visioning process is as important as the final outcome. Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said trust has to be built and that determination would come from the unity established through trust.

"We can control the future," Berke said. "We are a city of creators and we have to feel the power of creation. This is the biggest act of creation that we can do."

Lesley Scearce, head of the United Way of Greater Chattanooga, said hope and change will come when families feel heard.

The United Way will work with Velocity 2040 to reach out to all area nonprofits and churches and ask for help engaging the community. Some local employers have agreed to ask their employees to complete the survey, and officials think more will sign on.

All Hamilton County residents are being asked to go to the visioning website,, where they can complete the visioning survey created by user experience experts from Center Centre, a small, local school that trains user experience, or UX, designers. The survey - available in English and Spanish - will be open until Nov. 1. Video promotions will run on Facebook and television.

"We are also going to be on the ground together going to the hardest-to-reach places to make sure that voices aren't just at the table," said Scearce. "What this means to us is that we are not just building a bigger table, we are taking the table to the community, even in places where it is more difficult. What that looks like is working with neighborhood leaders in the group to pull together our champions in order to ensure that we can shape our future together."

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To participate in the new economic vision for Chattanooga go to Surveys will be accepted until Nov. 1.

Before the Velocity 2040 launch, the chamber hosted two invitation-only events that brought together a racially diverse mix of middle- and upper-middle-class residents across sectors. At the daylong meetings, attendees were assigned to random tables, educated about the trends threatening Chattanooga and asked to assess and discuss the city's biggest weaknesses and preparedness to address them.

At these events, which were hosted by futurist Rebecca Ryan, a national consultant who guides communities through forecasting and planning, participants identified these issues as the biggest trends for which the city must prepare:

> Racially-based income inequality growing

> Growing income inequality

> Increasingly diverse population

> Continuing education increasingly important

> Growing Latin population

> Shrinking middle class

As of now, no public visioning meetings are planned for the wider community. Researchers identified the shared experience of the visioning meetings as a key ingredient to successful culture change, but those events are costly and funds are limited, according to chamber officials.

The survey results will be used by the chamber to inform its job and talent recruitment strategy for the future and give government, nonprofit organizations, foundations, churches and businesses a shared vision with which to work.

Contact Joan McClane at [email protected]