Cook: What changes are coming in post-pandemic Chattanooga?

Staff file photo / Downtown Chattanooga is seen from an overlook in the TVA's Raccoon Mountain Pumped Storage Facility.

In the late '80s and early '90s, public and private forces aligned to create a series of economic and cultural changes so profound, people all over the world took note. Some even called it a renaissance.

Are we on the cusp of something similar?

Here are the signs:

> It's post-pandemic.

Many of us are emerging from COVID-19 with a renewed sense of values, or, at least, a hell of a lot of questions. Is this the best way to live? And work? And love others?

Look at Bryan Johnson, leaving public education for the trucking industry. Or David Roddy, stepping down as police chief to spend time with family.

This post-pandemic Chattanooga will vote, spend money, congregate and recreate differently. Our outdoor identity will deepen.

Already primed for entrepreneurism, Chattanooga will now see an explosion of small businesses, investments, new ideas.

And new faces.

A growing migration from the east and west coasts is bringing big city people here and their ideas, money and values.

And influence.

> It is post-George Floyd.

In May, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce made public a CEO pledge for racial equity.

Within days, 40 business leaders had signed. Now, it's up to 85.

In June, Eric Fuller, CEO of US Xpress, wrote a stirring op-ed.

"I'm calling on Chattanooga business leaders, large and small, to begin taking steps toward creating a culture that's more accepting of others from different races, ethnicities, genders and sexual identities," he wrote.

Both are remarkable documents.

Neither would have happened five or 10 years ago.

Today, white leaders are stepping back, doing racial training, reading hard books, listening instead of rushing in.

There is a growing movement connecting private, public and nonprofit leaders in ways previously unseen here.

Based around a shared belief in equity, they envision a renaissance that does not change the skyline, but the board room.

The new spires - built not with cranes but hearts and minds - will deconstruct the poverty line, the glass ceiling, the closet.

Give credit: Other (criticized) groups tilled the ground first. Concerned Citizens for Justice. The Unity Group. Tennessee Valley Pride. I Can't Breathe CHA. Chattanooga Connected. The Ed Johnson Project. And many others.

> It is post-Andy Berke.

The former mayor emphasized innovation, yet new mayor Tim Kelly will go farther, doing what Berke couldn't, or wouldn't.

City Hall will use data and metrics to make measurable changes in the social fabric. Not lip service, but lasting changes.



Or maybe not.

It's entirely possible we regress and Chattanooga becomes even more homogeneous and elite.

Here are the signs:

> The end of middle-class home-ownership.

Real estate is the stablest path to generational wealth.

And fewer Chattanoogans can afford it.

"Our community leaders are doing a great job of bringing all of these businesses and people to Chattanooga, but we don't have enough places for them to live," said Doug Fisher, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Greater Chattanooga.

The out-of-state wealthy are buying homes, often sight unseen, often above the asking price. Out-of-state investment firms are buying apartments.

This is the new carpetbagging: an exploitation of Chattanooga home prices with the potential to collapse our middle class and those striving for it.

If a city is full of houses, but no one can afford them, is it still a city?

"'Move Here, Rent Forever' isn't a great marketing campaign," one friend said.

> Our city refuses greater diversity.

The Chamber pledge? Fuller's vision?

It will take more than one op-ed or 85 signatures.

Unless more leaders, churches and businesses realize that a homogeneous city is a dying city, we will stagnate and miss our moral, social and economic call.

"We've had numerous finalists who have backed out of the interview process because they were hesitant to move to Chattanooga," Fuller wrote. "Overwhelmingly I heard them talk about the lack of acceptance of diversity in our city."

> Our city refuses greater sustainability.

Earlier this year, BlackRock, the world's largest investment firm, proclaimed climate change as "a historic investment opportunity."

"There is no company whose business model won't be profoundly affected by the transition to a net-zero economy," CEO Larry Fink wrote.

"There are few places in the world where this investment opportunity is more relevant," responded green|spaces executive director Michael Walton in an open letter.

Chattanooga can become the leading sustainable city in the South.

This will protect and cherish Creation and our natural resources, attract more global attention and securely position ourselves against an uncertain and difficult climate.

"The Chattanooga region has everything we need to lead the way to a brighter, cleaner future," Walton writes. "We just need to invest in it."

Will we?

We hold so many aces.

We could become a more equitable, loving and healthy city.

Or even more gilded, unstable and bifurcated.

The path will not be accidental; certain people will make certain decisions.

What will the coming years bring?

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at [email protected]