State of the CityView
The crowd of more than 500 people stopped shaking hands and milling about as the lights dimmed in The Chattanoogan's ballroom. After the invocation and presentation of colors, audience members took their seats to learn about the state of their city.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke took the stage to a standing ovation. Year one was over, and year two was just getting started.
In his first State of the City address, Berke highlighted successes over the last year -- boosting morale at the Chattanooga Police Department, wrangling the broken Fire and Police Pension Fund, a 40 percent reduction in gun crime and a booming youth readership program.
"We have done more than one year's worth of work in 365 days. And over the next year, it will only get better," Berke said.
While Berke is proud of his first year in office, he has no time to dwell on the past while forging into year two.
He wants to continue the city's focus on public safety, youth reading levels and economic development. But he also wants to kick off a block-sized business incubator, add a new incentive program, get homeless veterans off the streets and start a "baby college" to educate new parents in Chattanooga.
Touting more than 2,000 jobs that have been created in the city over the last year, Berke said that trend would continue. And do to it, he wants to designate an entire area in the city as an "innovation district."
"Today, I am happy to announce that job one for the Enterprise Center will be to establish an innovation district in Chattanooga, pulling together advanced technology, entrepreneurs, existing industries and higher education into one location," he said.
Citing Chattanooga's dirty, heavily industrial past, Berke said the city has been guilty of letting new businesses pass it by; that won't happen under his watch, he said.
Berke didn't say where the district would be, but he stressed that it would be a meeting place for creative thinkers and businesspeople in Chattanooga that will help incubate new ideas.
After the address, Berke said the district is in its first stages.
"Enterprise Center is getting the nuts and bolts of it together," Berke said. "It's going to take some people coming together. ... It has to be a place where people want to be. So let's figure out a location people will get excited about, and let's get going."
Berke's office recently reorganized the Enterprise Center, which leads high-tech business initiatives for the city. The center offers new business owners advice and helps with startup investment.
Along those lines, Berke said he also wants to support existing businesses with a new small business initiative.
The program would provide incentives through grant funds to local businesses that employ 100 or fewer residents -- and that add at least five living wage jobs.
"Without turning away from the success we have had in bringing in companies like Volkswagen and Amazon, we can work harder to help small, local companies expand here," Berke said.
Berke wants to make Chattanooga a place where anyone can do business. He praised the new, streamlined city government for a 6 percent increase in minority-owned businesses.
A third major goal Berke outlined is to end veteran homelessness in Chattanooga by December 2016. Berke said he would sign an executive order to start the Mayor's Task Force on Ending Chronic Veteran Homelessness.
After the address, Berke said the scope of the issue is broader than people think.
"It's a real issue. At any given time, we have approximately 40 people who are chronically homeless veterans," he said.
In addition, he wants the city to open a baby college to tutor expectant parents about how to care for their children.
"There is plenty more to do -- but we are doing it. We have built a strong foundation this year; and we will continue this important work over the next 12 months," Berke said.
After the address, District 7 Councilman Moses Freeman praised Berke's efforts over the last year.
"I'm very pleased with the results he has been able to bring us. I was particularly impressed that he has focused on the people," Freeman said. "This is the first mayor I can remember that has been so focused at addressing these issues we have in a positive way."
Councilman Jerry Mitchell said the speech "focused and crystallized what the mayor's office has accomplished."
"I would say the state of the city is improving," Mitchell said.
Councilman Chris Anderson said he has been proud of Berke's actions many times during his first year in office, but Monday night was a new height.
"I think what the mayor laid out was a bold vision for the city of Chattanooga and it's one that's long overdue. I'm willing to sign on to every one of the mayor's initiatives and fight for them in the City Council," Anderson said.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6481.