Opinion: Growing Clarksville declares size matters, but Chattanooga declares ‘better is better’

Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / Chattanooga's skyline is seen over the ridge on Moccasin Bend in this photo made from Lookout Mountain on Nov. 16, 2021.

Just over a decade ago, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield was frankly and good-naturedly hoping the Scenic City would sooner rather than later pass Knoxville in population and become the third largest city in Tennessee.

"Didn't expect to catch them right away," the then-mayor said in 2011, according to Times Free Press archives.

"A lot of funding" is based on population numbers, he said.

Chattanooga, at the time, was growing faster than Knoxville, and 2010 census figures indicated the city, with more than 167,000 residents, was less than 12,000 behind its upper East Tennessee rival, which had almost 179,000 residents.

Today, according to 2022 census estimates, the city is still less than 12,000 people behind Knoxville, but it has another city breathing down its neck.

Clarksville, northwest of Nashville on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, has grown to the state's fifth largest city, and census estimates put it just 7,000 residents behind Chattanooga. If growth stays the same, according to the census, Clarksville would pass us in 2024.

Frankly, we don't think how many are in the city are as important as what is in the city — its heartbeat, its vibe, its attraction.

To take nothing away from Clarksville, which is a bedroom community for Fort Campbell, the country's second-largest military base just across the Kentucky border, we don't hear of many people eyeing Clarksville as a destination city.

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly had a similar sentiment.

"Bigger isn't better," he told this newspaper Wednesday. "Better is better. We are not in a race to be the biggest city in Tennessee. We are in a race to be the best."

Clarksville Mayor Joe Pitts, for his part, made a pitch for growth.

"Growth is good," he said. "Population growth is better. With population growth comes opportunities."

In other words, size matters. Chattanooga and Knoxville have been battling to prove that for 150 years.

Knoxville in the 1870 census had a population of 8,682 to Chattanooga's 6,093 in the determination to be the state's third largest city behind Memphis and Nashville. Over the next century, the two cities exchanged places six times.

Chattanooga claimed third in the censuses of 1880, 1890, 1910, 1930, 1940, 1950 and 1960, while Knoxville captured the honor in 1900, 1920 and finally laid solid claim to it 1970.

Knoxville stagnated in population between 1930 and 1960, gaining only about 6,000 people, but added more than 60,000 in the 1960s to wind up with 174,587, according to the 1970 census.

Chattanooga's slow growth lasted a decade longer, winding up with 716 fewer residents in the 1970 census (119,082) than it had in the 1930 census. Then, after a sizable gain in the 1970s, it lost about 10% of its population with job cutbacks in the nuclear power, heavy manufacturing, and textile and apparel industries in the 1980s.

That time period between 1930 and 1970 was when Littlefield was born, educated and began his working career. He began his career as a city planner with the Tennessee State Planning Commission, later became director of economic development for the city of Chattanooga, head of the nonprofit Chattanooga Venture, a Chattanooga city commissioner and eventually mayor in 2005.

In 2007, census figures revealed Chattanooga was the fastest growing major city in Tennessee, having increased 8.2% since the 2000 census. Knoxville recorded 4.9% growth over the same period.

"It's been a lifelong goal of mine to become the third largest city in Tennessee," Littlefield said at the time.

The then-mayor also didn't think much of the U.S. Bureau of Census count, and in a challenge from the city the agency agreed to add 13,103 more residents to its 2006 estimate.

"We're coming after you, Bill Haslam," Littlefield quipped about the then-Knoxville mayor.

Haslam didn't take the bait at the time, but Knoxville City Councilman Joe Bailey did.

"I do think Chattanooga 15 or 20 years ago was kind of on the bottom of everybody's list," he said, "and now it seems like it is at the top of a lot of people's lists."

Haslam, later a two-term Tennessee governor, told a Knoxville writer he didn't see the competition as a "Coke and Pepsi-type rivalry."

A year later, Littlefield said he felt the city was hitting its stride.

"We were in a deep hole in the 1980s," he said. "I won't say it's time to declare total victory, but we've definitely dug ourselves out of where we were, and people are recognizing Chattanooga as a great place to live."

As long as the city doesn't find itself in any growth gaps like it did between 1930 and 1970 and in the 1980s, we don't imagine the numerical ranking will make much of a difference in the long run.

Gary Jaeckel, a management consultant for the Clarksville area at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville's Municipal Technical Advisory Service, put it this way: "There really is not a competition, so to speak, when it comes to population size, other than bragging rights — being one of the big four."