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After a record year for travel and tourism in 2019, Chattanooga entered 2020 expecting another year of record sales in the local hospitality industry and another year of solid growth in the overall economy and job market.

A year-end survey by the Manpower staffing agency rated Chattanooga one of the best employment markets for any mid-sized city, calling Chattanooga a "hiring hotspot" as 2020 began.

But the COVID-19 virus quickly changed that economic trajectory. The coronavirus and the efforts to control its spread has forced the shutdown of one of Chattanooga's major industries, at least temporarily, and business leaders are unsure when tourism and other local industries will fully rebound.

"The travel and hospitality sectors are expected to have the greatest loss throughout the country during this crisis with estimates of declines anywhere from 40% to 45%," said Barry White, president of the Chattanooga Tourism Co., formerly the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The timing on this (arrival of COVID-19) was terrible for us because it us when we were getting into March, which is one of our best months of the year with families traveling to Chattanooga during spring breaks."

White was one of three key business leaders on the forefront of the economic challenges presented by the coronavirus in Chattanooga who talked with the Times Free Press during a webinar on bringing back business during the COVID-19 crisis.

White, Christy Gillenwater of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and Jay Dale of First Horizon Bank shared their views about the future during a webinar on May 6. The speakers all agreed the speed and scope of the slowdown has been unprecedented and the future outlook remains unclear given the lack of certainty about when a cure or vaccine for COVID-19 could be available and how consumers will act in the meantime until there are such medical breakthroughs.

But the business leaders are confident the crisis will pass and Chattanooga will bounce back. The economic and environmental transformation of Chattanooga over the past half century indicates both Chattanooga's resilience and innovation, the leaders said.

"We've seen amazing partnerships come out of this challenging times to try to transform our community," Gillenwater said. "As we look forward, we're still very bullish on how Chattanooga can come out of this challenging time compared with other communities."

A membership survey by the Chattanooga Chamber showed that over 73% of respondents had seen reduced revenues due to the COVID-19 virus and over 85% thought the downturn would last four or more months.

To aid small and startup businesses amid the stall in business activity, nearly a dozen local business and non-profit groups have come together to create a small business hotline to offer help, advice and counseling for small business owners and mangers who call (423) 206-2565.

"There are a lot of companies in our community that may not have relationships with the many business groups and support services we have and we want to open our arms to these businesses during this critical time and let them know that they can call on us as they think about a new normal and what that may mean for their business," said Gillenwater. 

The Chamber has also hosted a variety of webinars on everything from how to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program to how to effectively telework during the stay-at-home orders.

White said the tourism promotion agency suspended its advertising in other markets and initially turned to a virtual world experience by launching #Connect Chatt to allow performers to be paid with online entertainment.

"We're starting to see a reopening and we're learning our way with a lot of uncertainty on this path," said White, who acknowledged it could take two to three years to get back to Chattanooga' record volumes set in 2019. "But we have the ability to come back from this because we are Chattanoogans."

Air travel is likely to suffer some of the hardest hits in the travel industry, but White said the overwhelming number of visitors who come to Chattanooga do so by car.

One of the first reasons people will travel again is to see friends and family "and that is already a big part of our market," White said. The appeal of the Scenic City to many is as an outdoor tourist destination famous for its rock climbing, river rafting, mountain biking, hiking and scenery.

"As an outdoor oriented town where social distancing is easier than some urban areas, we are positioned better than many cities going forth," White said.

Dale, the head of Chattanooga's biggest bank, said First Horizon and other banks are much better positioned and home and real estate values more in line with actual costs than a decade ago when the last recession hit.

"The patient was very healthy before we hit this pandemic and I think the stimulus programs adopted by Congress should help to stabilize some of the downturn," Dale said. "I don't expect a "V" shaped recovery, but the economy will bounce back."

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