The new year begins with the strongest economy in Chattanooga in more than a decade.
A year-end survey found small businesses owners across America to be as optimistic in their business outlook as any time since the 1980s. Last year, the Chattanooga area added jobs at three times the pace of the country as a whole and the local economy is poised for another year of expansion.
As the economic recovery enters its eighth year, sustaining the the same pace of economic growth and momentum is getting tougher, especially in a tight labor market with interest rates expected to edge higher through 2018.
Nonetheless, the Chattanooga region is poised for growth this year from more road building, new battery-powered vehicles, additional apartment and subdivision development and continued growth in the region's changing entertainment and dining landscape.
Chattanoogans who were around the in 1970s can remember when the Brass Register was one of the first restaurants to serve liquor by the drink in a city sometimes known as the "buckle of the Bible Belt."
"We were the first, I'd say popular hangout spot, serving liquor by the drink," says Paul Boehm, who was 22 years old in 1973 when he and a number of family and friend investors opened the Brass Register at 618 Georgia Ave., where Jefferson's restaurant is now.
"There was nothing in Chattanooga at all like that prior to the Brass Register opening — no place that you could go and meet your friends that was a fun, popular, sort of happening, busy place," Boehm says. "We were jammed from the time we opened till the time we closed."
Times have changed.
These days, you can stroll around Station Street next to the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel with a drink in your hand.
City and state laws were rewritten late last year to make Station Street the third public street in all of Tennessee where it's legal every day to have open containers of alcohol — along with a stretch of street in downtown Nashville near the Country Music Hall of Fame and world-famous Beale Street in Memphis.
It's just one example of the boom in new places in Chattanooga for entertainment, drink and fine dining. Distilleries, microbreweries, new concert halls, fancy hotels, upscale restaurants — even a high-tech pour-your-own beer hall — have opened or will open soon in the Scenic City.
Who's going to visit all these new venues?
Chattanooga should look and feel more like Manhattan, thanks to the biggest burst of residential development the city center has seen in decades.
It's expected that new construction and retrofitting downtown will add more than 1,700 apartments and condominiums, around 1,300 student beds and close to 600 hotel rooms.
Station Street and 'West End'
Station Street, lined by new bars and attractions, isn't the only new destination to materialize in Chattanooga.
The "West End" is what the DeFoor Brothers call the area around Chestnut and Eighth streets where they've invested about $88 million — most of which was spent to transform a 10-story office tower known as the "gold building" that was built to hold BlueCross BlueShield into the glitzy, 260-room Westin Hotel.
To create the West End, Ken and Byron DeFoor redid the streetscape in partnership with the city.
And they've opened a Peet's Coffee and Tea, a Pinkberry frozen yogurt shop and an upscale Italian restaurant, Alimentari Cucina e Bar.
Future developments planned for the West End include a tequila bar, a Steakbar 347 by Shula's and a clothing store.
People like the result, Ken DeFoor said.
"If I had a dollar for the people who said, "'I feel like I'm in New York"' he said.
Chattanooga's answer to Beale St., Printer's Alley
Station Street, which formerly was known as 14th Street, came into existence in the summer of 2016 after weeks of digging, moving electrical wiring and plumbing, and hauling in tons of rock and brick pavers.
The now pedestrian-friendly roadway is located between the Terminal Brewhouse and what used to be the loading dock area of the Chattanooga Choo Choo.
The hope is to close Station Street regularly to motor traffic on weekends and for special events such as street parties and concerts, said Choo Choo President Adam Kinsey.
Partiers who walk down Station Street have options to choose from on both sides: The Choo Choo has patio and entry spaces facing Station Street for Stir, the Comedy Catch, the Back Stage Bar, Hush Lounge and the Stir, and the Revelry Room. Across from the Choo Choo two bars not affiliated with the hotel have opened: Regan's Place and Westbound Bar.
Comedy Catch co-owner Michael Alfano likens Station Street to Printer's Alley in Nashville, which for years has been a hotspot for Nashville's nightlife.
Alfano believes Station Street will become a place "where people come in the early evening for a drink and maybe an appetizer, then go somewhere for dinner and maybe a show and then come back for a nightcap."
Station Street is within walking distance of several eateries and venues on and near Main Street such as the Flying Squirrel, Clyde's On Main, and Slick's.
The Choo Choo Hotel isn't done reinventing itself.
Also in the works is a Ridgecroft Refining, a new distillery that will produce vodka, rum, whiskey and gin; American Draft, a pour-your-own, 29-tap beer hall housed in an historic train car; and two yet-to-be-announced restaurant concepts by veteran Chattanooga restaurateurs; one restaurant is a project of Allen Corey, who opened Stir, and the other is by Tim Hennen and Rob Stickley, who are partners in Bones Smokehouse in East Brainerd.
And more changes are coming. The hotel wants to sell the two acres of land on which its banquet hall stands for future development, such as office or mixed-use. And the Choo Choo is willing to make space available in its historic rail cars to outside businesses.
Chattanooga Whiskey's new Riverfront Distillery, which has the capacity to produce 14 barrels of bourbon a day, is up and running. It's geared toward production and won't be open to the public, at least not initially. Tourists will visit Chattanooga Whiskey's microdistillery downtown at 1439 Market St. across from the Chattanooga Choo Choo.
New microbreweries and tap rooms have opened recently in Chattanooga. You could call 2017 "the year of beer" in Chattanooga, since four new microbreweries announced their intentions to open here.
When the newcomers are added to the area's existing seven small breweries, it brings the total to 11 microbreweries — almost a doubling in the number of local beer producers. Chattanooga's microbrew scene is concentrated on ML King Boulevard near the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
It's home to Hutton & Smith Brewing Co. and Oddstory Brewing Co. A new craft beer taproom named Barley opened at the corner of M.L. King Boulevard and Houston Street. It has 64 beers on tap, a focus on locally-made brews and, during the daytime at least, the quiet ambience of a library. Another microbrewery is slated to open within walking distance: WanderLinger Brewing Co. in the first floor of the old King Street storage building.
Music venues: The Walker & The Signal
The Robert Kirk Walker Community Theatre is upstairs inside Memorial Auditorium, separate from the main auditorium space.
Though it has an 800-plus seat capacity, it's been almost forgotten over the years — so much so that many Chattanoogans aren't even aware it exists. Except for a few events here and there, the venue really hasn't been used.
But the Tivoli Foundation, which oversees the Memorial and Tivoli theaters downtown, has worked to increase the venue's profile. It's put signage for the Walker Theater on the front of the Memorial Auditorium and has booked some well-known performers in the Walker, including Delbert McClinton, a joint show by Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt and Neko Case.
Chattanooga's newest music venue, The Signal, is due to open early this year on Chestnut Street near Finley Stadium in what used to be The Jump Park, an indoor trampoline playground.
The Signal, which had its name chosen via an online contest, will seat between 600 to almost 1,200 people for concerts, said co-founder and co-owner Chris Cobb of JR Facility Management. Other JRFM properties include Marathon Music Works and Exit/In in Nashville and The Truman in Kansas City.
City's boozy history
While times have changed in Chattanooga, the liberalized take on alcohol gets back to the city's roots.
"Pre-Prohibition, there were dozens of distilleries and saloons everywhere," says Boehm, who equipped the Brass Register with the bar and back bar from the original Chattanooga Brewing Co., a massive, brick brewery complex downtown near where the Tennessee Aquarium now stands.
"That mahogany back bar is still there at Jefferson's, Boehm says.
He says the city's nightlife improved after he got out of the restaurant business and moved with his wife in 1984 to South Carolina.
"Chattanooga has just gone crazy with fun stuff happening," Boehm says.