Many residents wary about pace of Chattanooga’s growth

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Contractors are busy completing homes in Westview Crossing off of East Brainerd Road on July  2, 2021.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Contractors are busy completing homes in Westview Crossing off of East Brainerd Road on July 2, 2021.

Is the Chattanooga area growing too fast?

More than one-third of Hamilton County voters think so, according to a survey of Hamilton County voters participating in the Nov. 8 election.

Among 311 voters sampled at the polls across the county during early voting and on Election Day, nearly 52% said Chattanooga and Hamilton County are growing at the right pace, and nearly 36% of respondents said local growth was too fast. Fewer than 7% of those sampled said they thought Hamilton County was growing too slow.

Voters in the faster-growing suburban areas of the county were generally more likely to think the county is growing too fast, the poll showed.

"There's no doubt we're excited about the growth of our community, but we are choking," said state Rep. Greg Vital, a Republican who represents many of the fastest-growing areas in Hamilton County around Ooltewah and Collegedale. "Our infrastructure and our roads, utilities and broadband can't keep up with the rate we are expanding."

 

In a telephone interview, Vital said Chattanooga has geographical challenges that make the expansion of roads more expensive and challenging than in many parts of America.

"We've got to face the reality that as much as we love growth, we've got to catch up (with infrastructure) or we're going to scare people away with our congestion," Vital said. "We're in danger of losing what brought a lot of people here in the first place."

While most Chattanoogans worried about a lack of growth a generation ago when Chattanooga's population declined, attitudes toward growth appear to be changing as the growth pace in the region has picked up.

The city of Chattanooga lost almost 10% of its population during the 1960s, and another 10% between 1980 and 1990, according to the decennial census counts of the number of local residents. It would have lost more residents had it not been for the annexation of outlying suburban areas.

Chattanooga was hard hit a generation ago by job losses at many of its biggest employers due to economic changes, foreign competition and automation. But since the 1990s with the opening of the Tennessee Aquarium and the emergence of Chattanooga as a logistics capital amid the growing South, Chattanooga has more than regained those population losses.

Hamilton County has grown faster than the nation as a whole over the past decade, but the county's population growth has remained below 1% a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Census population estimates.

In 2021, Hamilton County's population was 369,135, or 9.5% more than in the 2010 census. The annual growth of the county has been about 30% faster than the U.S. as a whole, but the population of Hamilton County is still growing at less than 0.9% a year.

"This is not a breakneck pace," Charles Wood, interim president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview. "But I do think we have really strong momentum coming out of the pandemic, and we're definitely seeing inbound migration. There is definitely economic and population growth here, but it is not at the scale you are seeing in metro Nashville. People are looking at places like Nashville and wondering, will that happen in Chattanooga?"

Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp said Chattanoogans are going to have to get used to more traffic as the city continues to grow.

In a recent speech to the Chattanooga Rotary Club, Wamp said he expects Hamilton County will grow primarily to the north where more land is available for development. Wamp said 80% of the new residential lots being added in the county are in unincorporated areas outside of the 10 municipalities within the county.

"As much as we loathe traffic headaches, they probably aren't going anywhere in Chattanooga," Wamp said. "People want to live in great places, and people still drive cars, and we can't re-figure the very unique geography of this region. So moving east and west is going to continue to be difficult for a long time."

Anchored by the potential development at the former McDonald Farm, Wamp predicts the county's population and development will grow the most to the north in future years. In December 2021, Hamilton County acquired the 2,100-acre farm in Sale Creek for future industrial, office and recreational development.

Vital was among a group of 30 individuals from the regional planning and development organization known as Thrive Regional Partnership who traveled to rapidly growing Northwest Arkansas last month to see how officials are coping with growth and still preserving quality of life.

"There's nobody who can look at interstates 24 or 75 and say that growth isn't out of control," Vital said. "We're funneling too much traffic onto too few lanes in Tennessee, and we're going to have to deal with it. We're going to need some wider roads, and we're going to need to get broadband completed in Hamilton County."

  photo  Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Traffic moves along Interstate 24 in the early morning of Nov. 11, 2022, in this view, looking west, from McBrien Road.
 
 

PLANNING FOR GROWTH

Bridgett Massengill, president and CEO of Thrive Regional Partnership, said the 16-county group of officials from Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama was created to try to help coordinate and plan smarter growth for the future in the Chattanooga region."

"This is exactly why Thrive exists, because we want to make sure that all of these communities and people wh0 are making decisions about their own community's growth are at the table for the entire region to make sure that we don't grow in an irresponsible way," Massingill said in a telephone interview. "We want to work together and in a way so that we can preserve what is special about our region and ending up with a community that no one wants to come to anymore because it's too difficult to get in and out of. "

Thrive says its work on transportation, development and environmental protection aims to help build a better region for all residents.

"We want to make sure that the things that people love about the Chattanooga region, which has so much to do with the outdoors, are protected and that we don't wake up one day and see that it's all been developed and there is no more outdoors to explore," Massengill said.

Thrive is considering whether a highway bypass in North Georgia around part of Chattanooga could relieve some of the interstate congestion in Chattanooga.

Ethan Collier, a Chattanooga homebuilder and chairman of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission, said city and county planners are also working to help balance the demands of a growing population with the land and infrastructure challenges such growth brings.

"The secret is out about Chattanooga, and we're seeing more growth," Collier said. "We need to look for ways to grow better and smarter."

Collier is redeveloping urban areas for new, more densely populated neighborhoods, including the Mill Town taking shape in East Chattanooga on the site of the former Standard-Coosa-Thatcher mills.

BENEFITS OF GROWTH

For all the problems from traffic, congestion and rising rents, growth is helping to boost job opportunities, business growth and services from restaurants to air travel. Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly also noted growth is needed to help hold taxes down, especially in an inflationary period during which costs are rising overall.

Chattanooga's unemployment rate has remained below the U.S. average throughout 2022, and home values have continued to outpace inflation, although they have declined slightly in recent months with higher mortgage rates. Wood said Chattanooga's growing industries also should help the local economy to be cushioned, to some extent, from a likely economic downturn nationwide in 2023.

"The tri-state area that we serve as an airport is growing well, and that has helped us recover better than many areas from the pandemic," Jim Hall, chairman of the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport Authority, said during a recent board meeting. "People are moving to our community, and we're seeing more people come here for recreational opportunities, so we think we have a bright economic future."

After passenger boardings plunged 59% during 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic first cut off most travel, Chattanooga has regained most of that lost traffic, and Lovell Field handled a record number of takeoffs and landings in 2022 due to a growth in general aviation.

HOW THE SURVEY WAS CONDUCTED

The Chattanooga Times Free Press sampled 311 randomly selected people during early voting and on Election Day, Nov. 8, at more than two dozen polling places across the county. Of those sampled, 51.6% were women and 48.4% men. Additionally, 76% were white and 24% were people of color.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.

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