Resilient Chattanooga ready to rebound from coronavirus, Chamber of Commerce leaders say

Lookout Mountain serves as the backdrop for this view of downtown Chattanooga from the Unum parking garage. Major landmarks are, from left, First Horizon Bank, the James Building, the Maclellan Building, Regions Bank, Market Court (home to Raymond James and Fletcher Bright), The Westin, Republic Centre and the Liberty Tower. / Staff Photo by Robin Rudd

Entering 2020, a Manpower employer survey forecast that Chattanooga would lead the country in job growth and by early March the jobless rate in metro Chattanooga had sunk to a record low of only 3.3%.

The coronavirus quickly halted much of that growth this spring, however, and temporarily cut more than 30,000 jobs in metropolitan Chattanooga area during the worst of the economic shutdown. In April, unemployment in the Chattanooga area jumped to 13.3% - the highest rate since the Great Depression.

But during the annual meeting of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, business and government leaders said they are confident Chattanooga will bounce back.

photo Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger / Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter

"We are a community that has overcome floods, tornadoes and recessions and I'm confident we will overcome this pandemic also," Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger told Chamber members during the online, virtual gathering of business leaders.

Despite the economic slowdown, economic development specialists at the Chamber have already worked on more than 65 prospects in 2020, compared with only 48 such prospects at the same time a year ago.

"That's fantastic and shows we are still moving forward," said JV Vaughn, the outgoing chairman of the Chattanooga Chamber. "It's more critical than ever that we keep planning ahead for jobs."

photo Staff file photo / Jim Vaughn

Vaughn, the market president of SunTrust Bank in Chattanooga, led the Chamber's fundraising efforts in the past year to secure commitments for $15 million of private and public contributions to the Chamber's Chattanooga Climbs campaign over the next five years. The economic development plan, which began a year ago after a year-long study on where Chattanooga should be by the year 2040, is designed to encourage both growth and equity in Chattanooga's future by promoting both worker skills and a pro-business environment.

In the first year of the 5-year Chattanooga Climbs campaign, Chattanooga attracted $574.7 million of new investment, or more than half of the 2024 goal of $1 billion of added investments in new an expanding businesses. Projects announced in the past year included McKee Foods Corp.'s $495 million expansion, an $85 million expansion by Southern Champion Tray, Nippon Paint's $60 million plant planned in East Chattanooga and an $11.2 million expansion by Zeus Industrial Products.

photo Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke / Staff file photo

In the past decade, Chattanooga has attracted more than $4.2 billion of new business investment resulting in more than 18,000 jobs.

"We know that too many people in our community who are now hurting, but we are a resilient community and we have shown that over and over for more than 175 years." Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said. "We continue to see deals come into our city and we continue to innovate."

One of those innovations - EPB's citywide Gig internet service begun a decade ago - has positioned Chattanooga well for more remote and online work, according to Chamber leaders.

photo Staff file photo / Valoria Armstrong

Valoria Armstrong, national vice president of American Water who is the incoming chairman of the Chattanooga Chamber, said the Gig city has the high-speed connections businesses and workers are needing as the economy shifts more online.

"The pandemic has demonstrated the high value of offering the fastest internet in the world and when employers and employees need to work from home, we're one of the best," Armstrong told Chamber members during the annual meeting, "Site selectors tell us that mid-size cities are cool again and big-size cities are out."

Even with the economic slowdown, Armstrong said surveys show that 61% of companies say they are moving forward with site selection projects.

Christy Gillenwater, president of the Chattanooga Chamber, said the Chamber has pivoted this year to help businesses cope with the pandemic by providing information, resources, virtual networking opportunities and a "buy local" campaign. The Chamber produced more than 30 videos to help businesses find out about everything from where to get personal protection equipment to how to apply for Paycheck Protection Program loans.

"We are working hard to rebuild momentum and look forward to our future, but sometimes when you are climbing higher you have to step back and try a new route," Gillenwater said.

Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or at 423-757-6340.

2020 award winners

During Wednesday’s annual meeting of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, awards were given to:* Hixson Council of the Chattanooga Chamber for Council of the Yea* Hixson Council of the Chattanooga Chamber also won the Council Membership Growth Award* Carl Hames of Office Furniture Warehouse for Ambassador of the Year

photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Christy Gillenwater is shown at her office on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.