Chattanooga and Hamilton County leaders celebrated a $3 million federal appropriation on Tuesday that will play a role in the revitalization of the city’s oldest public housing neighborhood and help young children living in vulnerable households.
The new funding will be applied toward $8 million of planning and renovations at the former James A. Henry School on Grove Street and Sheila Jennings Park, which will be phase one in a larger project encompassing the Westside community.
The center will ultimately house 100 Head Start seats for children ages 3-5 in that area, resulting in a net addition of about 40, and provide classrooms, a health clinic and other recreational and educational opportunities to residents.
“This marks the beginning of a really bright future for the Westside community, which has been a long time coming,” Betsy McCright, the executive director of the Chattanooga Housing Authority, said during a news conference Tuesday morning outside the school.
In addition to the new federal allocation, Hamilton County has committed $2 million in federal pandemic relief funds for this effort, and the Chattanooga City Council will vote in the coming weeks on a $3 million appropriation, which would include $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars and $1 million in affordable housing funds.
James A. Henry School closed its doors as an elementary school in 1980 and is named after The Howard School’s first African American principal. The 100 Head Start seats at the James A. Henry School would replace 60 at the nearby Youth and Family Development Center, 501 W. 12th St., which would be torn down to make way for about 119 housing units.
Through an initiative called Westside Evolves, the Chattanooga Housing Authority, the Chattanooga Design Studio, the city of Chattanooga, Westside residents and other stakeholders have been working on plans since 2020 to provide one-for-one replacements of subsidized housing as part of an overarching revitalization plan for the neighborhood.
The plan proposes constructing 1,783 housing units on property owned by the city and the housing authority in an area bound by West M.L. King Boulevard, Riverfront Parkway, West Main Street and Highway 27, according to a 130-page report published in November. That includes replacements for existing public housing at College Hill Courts and Gateway Tower.
The new housing would be tailored for a mixture of income levels, ranging from at or below 30% of the area median income to market-rate units. The plan also contemplates opportunities for retail, services and other amenities, which includes the renovated James A. Henry School.
Members of the team met with U.S. Rep Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, who sits on the House Committee on Appropriations, last winter to share the plan and ask for assistance with funding.
Fleischmann said the funding request had initially been for $4 million, but he noted the $3 million ultimately allocated to the project is “pretty darn good.”
“What I really like (is) it’s almost like ‘Field of Dreams,’” he told reporters after the news conference. “If you build it, they will come. If you plant it, it will grow. We planted this $3 million seed.”
That appropriation will build on the $2 million already allocated by the county, Fleischmann said, and officials are hopeful the city will also provide its share of funding.
“What that will mean is combined success for the people of Westside,” Fleischmann said. “I have an affinity for this great community. I want to see this community grow. It’s had some disadvantages in the past, but I want to see it come roaring back.”
The Chattanooga Housing Authority also plans to apply for a federal Housing and Urban Development Choice Neighborhoods grant in the coming months.
Chattanooga City Councilwoman Raquetta Dotley of East Lake said the project will result in a community composed of residents from multiple income levels.
“It’s going to become an upward mobility community as opposed to a poverty pocket,” she said. “And that’s what you want to see. You want to see people be able to move through the process because everyone’s not given equal footing when they get out into this world.”
Students living in the Westside neighborhood will also have easier access to the Construction Career Center on Roanoke Avenue. According to a news release, the Association of General Contractors of East Tennessee plans to provide transportation to the new facility from East Ridge and The Howard School.
Many students who live in the Westside community also attend Howard, and planners aim for the new facility to teach skills that would allow them to get a well-paying job in the construction industry as soon as they graduate high school.
“Developing construction skills will provide a strong foundation for the future; however, what excites us for our Howard students is that once they graduate, they will be able to be hired for construction projects within their home community,” Leslie Gower, CEO of Associated General Contractors of East Tennessee, said in a news release.
The Westside community was built in 1940 and is now home to more than 1,500 households. Residents have a median income of less than $15,000 annually, and the area has a poverty rate of 87%. The neighborhood has experienced a 40% increase in domestic violence and a 65% jump in violent crime since the start of the pandemic, according to a news release.
The Chattanooga Head Start program has a total enrollment of almost 1,000 and serves as a leg up for children ranging from infancy to about five years old, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Jessica Nicolou, the site director at the Head Start location in Cedar Hill, said in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Monday that the primary goal of the program is to ensure children are socially and emotionally ready for kindergarten.
“Head Start serves the most at-risk children in our communities,” Nicolou said. “They’re children that come from low-income families, and we provide a safe place for those children to be educated.”
Many of the children have experienced some form of crisis. Their families may fall under the federal guidelines for poverty or don’t live in stable housing conditions. The program also assists foster children and those from households where English isn’t the primary language.
“We have a criteria sheet essentially where each family as they come in — and we learn their situation — is given sort of an objective score based on that,” Bart Stewart, the program’s engagement coordinator, told the Times Free Press in an interview on Monday. “A lot of people kind of think that we accept children first come, first served, but really what we do is we use that criteria to find the ones who are at the most urgent need.”
Head Start focuses on assisting the “whole child,” which includes working alongside parents to help them reach their goals. Stewart said the program provides parents with referrals for additional education or employment. Employees also help families navigate health care decisions, enabling them to stay on top of physicals, vaccinations and dental exams.
Additionally, the program offers classes for parents, which can include lessons on nutrition, shopping on a budget, first aid, financial literacy and various other skills.
Contact David Floyd at email@example.com or at 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.