Looking to Cincinnati model, Chattanooga officials and health leaders begin outlining goals for wellness district

An eye-level perspective of the district core for the proposed Chattanooga Health and Wellness District.

In mid-November, 30 leaders in the health care, academic and business communities traveled north to Cincinnati, Ohio, to see in practice what for years has only been a vision for many Chattanoogans: a unified district dedicated to medicine, education and research.

There, they saw what competing hospitals and institutions that historically strategized behind closed doors could accomplish for themselves and surrounding neighborhoods by working together. The effort attracted new development and talent, sparked growth and innovation, and fueled revitalization that benefited the entire community. After 15 years in the making, Cincinnati's Uptown Innovation Corridor is considered a national model for specialized urban districts.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who attended the trip on Nov. 19-20, said momentum behind transforming Chattanooga's 3-mile stretch of real estate from the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee headquarters on Cameron Hill to CHI Memorial's Glenwood Campus into a "Health and Wellness District" is growing.

"We've been talking about this for a while, and I think the Cincinnati trip was a major step in the right direction. You can start to imagine what it would look like if you translated it back home," Berke said.

The idea to create a dedicated health care hub along Chattanooga's Third and Fourth street corridor started gaining more traction about two years ago, when the nonprofit development organization River City Company conducted a citywide parking study.

The study found that anchor institutions, such as Erlanger Health System, the University of Tennessee Chattanooga and Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation, were planning to grow and needed more parking space. Boxed in by each other and their neighbors - the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department and Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences - they had to come together to find a solution.

At the same time, the city was planning road construction to revamp the surrounding area along Third Street, Fourth Street, Mabel Street, Riverfront Parkway, Lindsay Street and Houston Street. That project, which is separate from the health district but important to its cohesiveness, is scheduled to start in 2021.

photo An aerial perspective of the UTC/Erlanger corridor in the proposed Chattanooga Health and Wellness District

It was during those parking meetings that organizations began discussing their long-term goals. Other stakeholders to the east - Parkridge Health System and CHI Memorial Hospital - came to the table, and partners funded a consulting firm to assess the feasibility of creating a health and wellness district. The result was a road map outlining "a plan for the development of a first-class health and wellness district that will serve as a new center of innovation, economic growth, and opportunity for the City of Chattanooga, Hamilton County and the State of Tennessee."

Although planning is still in the early phases, Kim White, president and CEO of River City Company, said the project is "one of the biggest opportunities we have as a city."


16%: health, wellness and education jobs as a share of all jobs in Chattanooga34,500: jobs along the corridor$1.4 billion+: in annual payroll4,100+: academic degrees awarded annuallySource: Chattanooga Health, Wellness & Education Roadmap

"It's amazing what can happen just getting everyone in the same room," White said. "Each of the entities have a different need and focus, but I think when you put it under buckets of the branding, the neighborhood work, research and development, that they could all benefit."

More than 15 stakeholders are involved with six core members that have a direct stake in the physical build-out of the district. Those include UTC, Erlanger, CHI Memorial, Parkridge, Siskin and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, which is based in Memphis but conducts some of its medical education in Chattanooga.

The corridor already has many advantages that make it attractive for developers, White said. The area has seen more than $750 million invested in recent projects, with at least $400 million in projects planned for the next decade. It's home to the region's highest level of health care services, where 20% of Chattanooga's workforce is employed and more than 4,100 post-secondary degrees and certificates are awarded each year. Plus, the district is situated on a linear corridor that provides an opportunity to easily connect one end to the other.

If the plan were to come to fruition, the road map estimates it could add 6,800 new permanent jobs in Hamilton County and bring $960 million per year in new annual economic activity, including $80 million in annual retail, restaurant and parking revenue and $7.4 million in annual hotel revenue. That's in addition to more than $1 billion in one-time construction impacts from development costs and associated labor.

It's harder to estimate but equally valuable possible impacts include improved health outcomes, additional research and development capacity and funding, and increased property values, White said.

"To be able to walk to a job, to have more opportunity for the neighborhoods and to focus on the health - I think those are key pieces that all the hospitals were excited about - how we actually can focus on, in this district, the health of the city," she said.

Recent investments along the corridor:

Stakeholders have recently invested more than $750 million in new projects, with at least $400 million in projects planned for the next decade.CHI Memorial Expansion: $318 millon investment (2015)BCBS Cameron Hill Campus: $218 million investment (2006)Parkridge Expansion: $62 million investment (2017)Erlanger Children’s Outpatient Center: $35 million investment (2018)UTC West Campus Housing: $70 million investment (2018)Unum Mixed-Use Development: $50 million investment (2019)Source: Chattanooga Health, Wellness & Education Roadmap

Janelle Reilly, market chief executive officer for CHI Memorial, said affordable housing, access to healthy food and transportation options affect a population's health but are lacking around the district. While the hospitals have a common goal to improve health in the communities they serve, they're limited in their ability to address many of the social factors that make people sick.

"We know to really drive overall health outcomes we will need to partner with others in the community that have strength in those spaces," Reilly said. "I'm hopeful and I think it's possible. Just as leaders did many years ago when the downtown district was revitalized, you have to put aside some organizational perspective for the better of the community."

Cincinnati put a strong emphasis on working with local neighborhoods, which is key, Reilly said. For example, leaders in the district focused on improving housing to reduce childhood asthma, finding creative ways to open health clinics and grocery stores, and training local business owners in disadvantaged areas.

White said the next step in planning is up to the stakeholders.

"There's consensus that it's a great idea, but how do we move it forward? Is it just to have quarterly meetings? Is it to set up an organization? And that will be up to the stakeholders in the district to figure out," she said.

In addition to parking, challenges for the project include a lack of shared space for collaboration, inadequate or inaccessible workforce housing, insufficient transit system or transit options, funding and a limited capacity to develop talent with current capacity.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said he's excited to see more of a push for the project, but "people get a little more skittish" once you start asking for money.

"This is not something that could be done in one or two years - you're talking a long period of time, something that for more than a decade you'd continue to spread out, much like you've seen on the Southside," Coppinger said.

Planned investments along the corridor:

3rd & 4th Street ImprovementsWholesale reconstruction of 3rd and 4th streets to improve traffic, walkability and access to the district’s central corridor. Construction scheduled to start in 2021. Estimated investment: $24 million+UTC Health Sciences BuildingA planned 200,000 square foot facility co-led by UTC and UT Health to consolidate academic and lab space for nursing, health, biology, geology and environmental science programs. Scheduled start in 2022, completion by 2025. Estimated investment: $100 millionErlanger Master PlanA planned 600,000 square foot long-term renovation and expansion at the core 3rd Street campus, resulting in new neurology, cardiac, women’s, and children’s health centers of excellence. Scheduled to take place in phases over 10 to 15 years. Estimated investment: $300 million+Sources: Times Free Press and Chattanooga Health, Wellness & Education Roadmap

While the district isn't defined by a single project, education and workforce training are central to the concept.

Steve Angle, chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said the university has plans to build a new health science building to consolidate academic and lab space for nursing, health, biology, geology and environmental science programs. The initial cost estimate came to $140 million.

"That's a big lift, so we're trying to figure out how to divide the project into phases and to perhaps look at locating some parts of that elsewhere along the corridor," said Angle, who's also a trustee at Erlanger. "This is a great time for us to be really open and see how we maximize the impact of these investments on other activities in Chattanooga."

Angle said one of the takeaways from the trip was realizing that Chattanooga is already heading in the right direction, from the organizations that are part of the district to commitment from the mayors.

"We have some outstanding people, and I think we can leverage those assets to positively impact business development, start ups, research, entrepreneurship and innovation," he said. "There's a lot to be done, but it's very doable. This is a vision that I think we can realize."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.