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Director of Talent and Inclusion Darian Scott poses outside of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. / Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified David Martin's first job in Chattanooga - it was a copywriter, not underwriter. He also graduated from UTC in 2004, not 1999 - that is when he started. Updated at 10:37 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020.

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Chattanooga changes

When I graduated high school in 2002, I was ready to go as far away from Chattanooga as possible. It was a common sentiment among my peers — though they seem to have changed their opinions in the same way I did.

When I moved back from Boulder, Colorado, in 2007, seeing the city with fresh eyes allowed me to see its potential. The far lower cost of living was a perk, as were the job opportunities that come with knowing what feels like everyone in town. That small-town feel also makes this mid-sized urban area feel welcoming, whether you grew up here or not.

From 2010 to 2018, Chattanooga's population growth outpaced that of Tennessee's next-largest city, Knoxville — where many Chattanoogans move for college — according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many former Chattanoogans, including those we interviewed for this story, returned around the same time that EPB started offering fiber optic network service in 2009, providing internet access to homes at speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, at the time the fastest internet speed in the country. This earned Chattanooga its "Gig City" nickname and has helped to lure technology-based startups looking to benefit from the gig economy.

Former residents, particularly millennials like myself, are drawn back to Chattanooga to take advantage of those opportunities and rediscover the city's charm, which is more abundantly evident thanks to hip new areas such as the Southside that most people could not have imagined back in the '90s or early 2000s.

So, all you parents who are soon to become empty-nesters, you may want to hold off on converting your high school grad's bedroom into your new gym or home office space. They may be back sooner than you think.

 

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Director of Talent and Inclusion Darian Scott poses outside of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. / Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter

Darian Scott, 43, Director of Talent & Economic Inclusion at Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce

Moved back: 2013

"I moved back to Chattanooga with the hopes to make an impact in my community."

Born and raised in Chattanooga, Darian Scott has seen the city he's called home change over time. And since moving back for a job with the Chamber of Commerce, he's been trying to make it change for the better.

A 1993 graduate of Red Bank High School, Scott first moved away to attend Knoxville College and study accounting. When that didn't quite fit, he came back to Chattanooga, but was soon off to Alabama to study management at Alabama A&M University.

Scott became a hip-hop and rap entertainment promoter in Alabama and then moved to Atlanta to be closer to the industry. He still visited Chattanooga often, though, making the two-hour drive back and forth to visit his daughter, who is now 20 and living in Memphis.

Also, his job had him bringing music acts up to Chattanooga. The artists he promoted were successful, but their message didn't fit with his beliefs. He started to think he was part of a problem.

"At a certain time, Chattanooga was doing a lot of killing," Scott says, recalling a swell of gang violence in the 2000s. "I was back in Atlanta hearing about it. I knew some of the victims and some of the shooters. Knowing that's going on, you can't help but ask if you're contributing to it."

In 2013, he decided to be part of the change in his hometown by spreading positivity and making the city more diverse and inclusive through talent recruitment with the Chamber. In his current role, Scott also speaks to young students, providing a perspective that violence and gangs can be avoided.

"I moved back to Chattanooga with the hopes to make an impact in my community," he says. "I'm doing exactly what I wanted to come home to do. That's enough to hold me here."

Did you know?

The boomerang effect isn’t relegated to Chattanooga. According to a 2015 article in The Atlantic, nearly 20% of respondents in an Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll reported moving back home after spending significant time away, with people from the Deep South more likely to have left at some point.

 

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Ayesha Ophelia says she returned to Chattanooga because of her love of nature and the outdoors. / Staff photo by Tim Barber

Ayesha Ophelia, 39, Artist, creator of The Girlfriend Manifesto

Moved back: 2009

"Coming back to your hometown can be complicated, but it has been really cool to see how Chattanooga has grown and embraced certain ideas that I find important."

Ayesha Ophelia was over 1,000 miles away from Chattanooga, in Boston, when her mother got sick. Ophelia had grown up in Collegedale, but when college came around, she knew she wanted to get away to explore the world of art.

"There really wasn't a ton of art opportunity [in Chattanooga]," she says. "The closest place that I could go to was Atlanta."

At the Art Institute in Atlanta, Ophelia earned an undergraduate degree in photography in 2001. She then came back to Chattanooga to take on a business degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, but she wasn't ready to put down deep roots.

"I came back, but then I started to follow all these different opportunities to live in a lot of different cities. I've always been more of a free spirit, wanderer type," she says.

Ophelia bounced around to cities in Texas, Virginia, Massachusetts and Georgia. She was teaching art therapy with AmeriCorps in Boston when she got the news that her mother had lung disease. She decided to move back, but still wasn't settled on forever.

"Coming back to your hometown can be complicated, but it has been really cool to see how Chattanooga has grown and embraced certain ideas that I find important," Ophelia says, specifically pointing to the growing arts scene and nightlife. "It's morphed and changed into some of the larger cities that I had really enjoyed living in."

Though her mother died in 2017, Ophelia continues to live in Chattanooga, saying that she appreciates her hometown a little more now than when she was younger.

When describing Chattanooga to friends, she'll compare the Scenic City to Portland or Asheville, "but maybe Portland or Asheville 10 years ago," she says. "It's a special place, but it's small, and if you're looking for the creature comforts of a bigger city, you're not going to find them here. But there are a lot of little gems worth discovering."

 

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David Martin, cofounder of Heed Public Relations, poses for a photo at The Edney building. / Staff photo by Erin O. Smith

David Martin, 39, Co-founder of Heed Public Relations

Moved back: 2009

"I fell in love with Chattanooga before I knew I wanted to."

Originally from Knoxville, David Martin got his first taste of Chattanooga while visiting his paternal grandparents in Sale Creek, just past Soddy-Daisy. The Martins would visit them three or four times a year, mostly during summer breaks from school and on holidays.

His fondest memories are of hiking through the mountains, heading into the city for baseball games at Engel Stadium or shopping downtown, but the city itself was bland back then, he says.

Still, he decided to attend the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga — but the town he remembered wasn't here.

"Something was changing," says Martin. "By this time, the manifestations of the renaissance was happening."

Baseball was now played at a new stadium near the riverfront, and the aquarium had opened. There was something different in the air.

Martin completed his undergraduate degree in 2004. After pursuing a host of different majors, he was on his way to becoming a high school history teacher, but wasn't fully sold on the idea. So, he returned home to Knoxville to obtain his master's in U.S. History at the University of Tennessee. Still, he heard Chattanooga calling his name.

"Moving back was so alluring," Martin says.

On a whim, after graduating with his master's, he saved up enough money to move to Chattanooga to survive for three or four months. The Scenic City was in the midst of it remaking itself, so what better place to remake himself, he thought.

Martin applied for every job he could find and eventually landed one as an copywriter at an insurance company. Since then, he's worked in public relations and communications and had a stint as an adjunct history professor at UTC. In 2018, he and his wife, Natalie Roy Martin, co-founded Heed Public Relations.

"I truly believe Chattanooga is a perfect storm," he says. "It's the perfect sized town with an incredible amount of opportunity for its size."

What Martin loves most about Chattanooga these days are the same things he did as a child visiting his family all those years ago: going on hikes, heading to baseball games and exploring downtown.

"I fell in love with Chattanooga before I knew I wanted to," he says.

 

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Former McCallie student Peterson Hostetler stands in front of Founders Hall, where he lived as a dormitory student. / Staff photo by Tim Barber

Peterson Hostetler, 36, Financial Advisor at Vantage Point Financial Group

Moved back: 2009

"I didn't think I was going to stay in Chattanooga. But then my wife, Natalie, caught my eye."

Peterson Hostetler shares his Chattanooga story through the development of Coolidge Park.

When he moved here from Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 1998 to attend high school at McCallie, Coolidge Park was the place to take your date. When he moved back in 2009, the park was overrun with violence. Today, it's a place where you can take your 2-year-old to a regionally renowned music festival, which Hostetler did last year.

After a childhood of moving from state to state, he begged his parents not to make him switch high schools. With the choice between a military school and one that a family friend's sons had attended, he landed at the latter: McCallie.

When Hostetler graduated in the early 2000s, he found himself in Florida attending Rollins College on a rowing scholarship, studying philosophy in anticipation of taking the LSATs and attending law school.

Well, that was the plan.

Hostetler moved to Martha's Vineyard to work for the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation, teaching sailing lessons while starting a Marine consulting business and receiving his United States Coast Guard captain's license.

"Then I kinda got serious with life," he says of his switch to the financial sector.

He moved back to Florida to work for a small, five-person corporate consulting firm. When the firm got sold about four years later, Hostetler started to weigh other options.

In the time since he'd graduated from McCallie, his mother had moved to Chattanooga, and life started to line up for Hosteler. He was still in touch with a friend in the McCallie admission office who shared an open position. "[I thought], I'll go home, kick it with mom and work at McCallie for a year or two while I figure it out," he says.

In 2009, he joined the staff at McCallie as a crew coach and admissions officer.

"I didn't think I was going to stay in Chattanooga," he says. "But then my wife, Natalie, caught my eye."

He asked her out while in line for sushi at Whole Foods and "she hasn't been able to get rid of me since," he laughs.

 

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Honor Hosteler is seen on the Walnut Street Bridge. / Staff Photo by Robin Rudd

Honor Hostetler, 32, Director of partnerships for Chattanooga Visitors Bureau

Moved back: 2011

"If you want to know what it's like to live here, drive across the bridge one morning from one side of the river to the other and look at how beautiful your view is. You'll find yourself wishing your commute was longer!"

By the time she started her junior year in high school, Honor Hostetler had already lived in six states. She spent her final two years of high school in Chattanooga, where her brother, Peterson, had lived as a boarding student at McCallie School.

She initially left Chattanooga for college at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

"As someone who grew up constantly moving, after two years [in Chattanooga] I was ready for a change of scenery," says Hostetler, who took a job opportunity at the Waldorf Astoria in New Orleans after graduation. "At that point, downtown Chattanooga wasn't as vibrant as it is now. There was no entertainment district on the Southside and the North Shore was a totally different landscape."

When a job at The Read House presented itself, Hostetler moved back to Chattanooga — as her brother had done two years before. She is still in the hospitality industry, and has worked at the Chattanooga Visitors Bureau as director of partnerships for a little less than a year.

"It gives me a great perspective of everything Chattanooga offers between festivals, museums, restaurants, hotels, attractions," she says. "If you're looking for a way to fill a weekend, the options are endless."

The city's attributes aren't limited to its revitalized downtown and its scenic beauty, Hostetler adds, though both are definitely draws. "I live on the North Shore so I'm a little partial to that area, but I would encourage visitors to explore each of the neighborhoods: Southside, St. Elmo, Downtown, Signal, Lookout. They each have their own unique personality and the variety of businesses in each area reflect that."

Crisscrossing the city also highlights one of Chattanooga's more evident draws.

"If you want to know what it's like to live here, drive across the bridge one morning from one side of the river to the other and look at how beautiful your view is. You'll find yourself wishing your commute was longer!"

 

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Lonita Brewer, 39, moved away, but has now moved back to Chattanooga to work and be with family. / Staff photo by Tim Barber

Lonita Brewer, 39, EPB customer service officer

Moved back: 2010

"The opportunities, diversity of restaurants and places to go [now] probably would have kept me from moving so far away."

Born and raised in Chattanooga, Lonita Brewer wanted to go to college as far away as possible once she graduated from Girls Preparatory School. "I only applied to schools out of state," says Brewer, who chose Tusk University in Boston.

After nearly eight years in Boston, she moved to Washington, D.C., when a friend offered a free place to stay.

"I got sick of the snow," she says of her decision to leave Boston.

Brewer met her former partner and the father of her daughter in D.C., and after living in the capitol for five years, she decided to move back to Chattanooga. "The prospect of having to deal with the lottery system for charter schools [in D.C.] was nerve-wracking," she says, adding that she also wanted to move closer to her parents because of her mother's health problems.

Plus, she'd heard about the positive changes happening in her former hometown. While working in D.C. at the Newseum, she saw a story in The New York Times about her former hometown having the fastest internet in the world.

"It's a totally different city than it was 20 years ago," Brewer says of today's Chattanooga. "The opportunities, diversity of restaurants and places to go probably would have kept me from moving so far away."

That's the case for Brewer's 7-year-old daughter, who tells her mother she doesn't plan to go anywhere else.

 

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Estefania Ormaza poses at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. / Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter

Estefania Ormaza, 32, Key account manager at Empire Distributors of Chattanooga

Moved back: 2013

"Chattanooga has a stronger sense of community than I've found anywhere else."

A native Ecuadorian, Estefania Ormaza moved with her parents to Lookout Mountain in 1992, at age 5. The family lived near Rock City, and her parents eventually opened Terra Nostra, the popular tapas restaurant on Frazier Avenue that recently closed.

After graduating high school at Notre Dame, Ormaza left Chattanooga to attend nearby Maryville College. A job opportunity in distribution sales for the wine and spirits industry kept her in Knoxville for four years following graduation, but she found that the longer she stayed, the more she missed her family and the city that had been her home for most of her life.

"Chattanooga has a stronger sense of community than I've found anywhere else," Ormaza says.

It's also particularly welcoming to young families, offering lots of stuff for them to do, she says. Ormaza is the mother of two boys, Ayrton, 5, and Alejandro, 3.

So when a job in her field opened up in Chattanooga, she welcomed the chance to come back. This time, Ormaza chose to make her home on Signal Mountain, and says she comes across quite a few people in both her personal and professional life that she knew from high school.

"It's the smallest big city you can find," she says of Chattanooga, adding that it took leaving for her to really appreciate all the city has to offer — from the growth in arts and culture to the way the city is laid out and the ease of getting around in comparison to nearby cities such as Nashville.

Having come to Chattanooga when it was still considered one of the dirtiest cities in America, Ormaza has seen it transform into a city recognized as one of the best places to live and also for its abundance of outdoor assets. She points to Main Street and the Southside, as well as the restaurant scene that has blossomed over the past 15 years, as representative of the city's progress.

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