Editor's note: This is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. To read more, visit timesfreepress.com/150years.
The sun was starting to heat up Tuesday when Bob Corker looked across the parking lot where the idea for the 21st Century Waterfront began in May 2001.
He'd been installed as mayor of Chattanooga the month before, and the idea of developing the waterfront was an "afterthought and never a part of the campaign." The story has been well documented of his realization standing next to the Tennessee Aquarium that something was wrong.
The two-term U.S. senator stands on the river pier at Ross's Landing in 2019 and looks back where the parking lot was in 2001, then down to the amphitheater below, to the second aquarium peak, the Hunter Museum of American Art and on to the Walnut Street Bridge. The trees are 18 years taller.
""We all had just been telling a story about connecting to the river that just wasn't true," said the 66-year-old Corker. "It was just a false narrative the citizens believed. Something had to be done. It just wasn't true.
"I drive or bike down here all the time, and I never stop and think about what I did. Just never do it. I do think about all the citizens who enjoy the waterfront and think about what the waterfront will do for Chattanooga in the future now that we have made the physical connection to the river."
Corker moves 15 yards farther out on the pier. He shades his eye, wipes his brow and chuckles.
"But, you know, it's a pretty big deal."
The Chattanooga Times Free Press ($1.50 Sunday, 94 pages) thought so. Thirteen years earlier, the Chattanooga Times of publisher Ruth Holmberg and Chattanooga News Free Press of publisher Roy McDonald provided voluminous coverage of the opening of the aquarium in May 1992. Now, the combined newspaper of publisher Walter Hussman Jr., in its sixth year of existence, was the sole newspaper voice in the community.
The waterfront development began with a master plan done by the River City Company in 2000. It was adopted by Corker, who became mayor in April 2001, and he announced in May 2002 that a public-private partnership would fund and build the $120 million 21st Century Waterfront, including revamping the high-speed, four-lane Riverfront Parkway, in 35 months.
The daily newspaper had evolved to a six-column, more eye-appealing design by 2005. On May 8, 2005, when the paper started the countdown to the waterfront opening, there were only three stories on the front page where more than a dozen used to appear daily decades before. A graphic showing the 1992 aquarium next to a picture of the 2005 aquarium appeared under the headline, "Riverfront Renaissance." A countdown clock was at the top right of the page above the masthead and would hit zero on Saturday and be replaced with "It's Here" on Sunday, May 15.
On Thursday, May 12, the Times editorial page said, "After 20 years of dreaming, residents who visit the waterfront tomorrow and Saturday will find a remarkable celebration of a dream come true."
The newspaper carried one story on its five-story front page advancing the schedule for the first day of the two-day event on Friday, May 13. The day's focus was American Indian history and the article focused on The Passage, a new pedestrian walkway linking the Tennessee Aquarium and Ross's Landing. Lined with the history of the Cherokee Indians in the Chattanooga region, the passage leads to Ross's Landing, the beginning of the Trail of Tears that relocated the native Americans to Oklahoma in 1831.
Under a headline, "Cherokee legacy focus of dedication," the article's lead paragraph said, "After a 167-year absence, the culture of the Cherokee people is returning to Ross's Landing."
Readers of the Times Free Press woke up Saturday morning to the headline, "Fire across the river. Riverfront event celebrates Cherokee culture." A three-column picture shows two Cherokee leaders carrying torches walking down to Ross's Landing.
The news report said, "A dramatic torch lighting, an American eagle in flight, music and dance topped off Friday's daylong celebration of Cherokee culture along the Tennessee waterfront here."
"Grand celebration on the river" was the headline on the Times' editorial on Saturday, May 14. The newspaper called the day "a major milestone in Chattanooga's storied history," and said the event introduced "a transformed riverfront to the city, the region and the world beyond. The festivities offer a splendid opportunity to see the transformation that has taken place on the banks of the river that first gave Chattanooga life."
More than a decade later, former Mayor Jon Kinsey said, "I always though the waterfront was more for the residents here than the visitors."
The Sunday paper concluded its coverage with a three-column, vertical picture of fireworks exploding over a lighted aquarium late Saturday night. The headline said, "Big splash! The waterfront vision becomes a reality as the city celebrates at a grand finale."
Lee Anderson of the Free Press offered closing remarks to his "Hail 21st Century Waterfront" editorial, saying, "We should forever thank former Mayor Bob Corker for a rare degree of vision and his even rarer ability to carry out great dreams in an amazingly short period of time — with great constructive impact."
Ken Hays left the Kinsey administration and became president of the River City Company in 2000. The development company had completed a master plan for the waterfront that included altering Riverfront Parkway shortly before Corker took office in April 2001.
As a part of the River City board, Corker knew of the plan, but nothing he heard was included in his campaign platform or speeches. Simultaneously, the Tennessee Aquarium, Hunter Museum of American Art and the Children's Discovery Museum had already initiated planning for new additions before Corker came into office.
"We decided to wait on releasing the plan until after Corker took office," Hays said. "It wasn't anywhere on his radar. Once he was elected, we walked him through it and he got super jazzed. Once he realized we had a plan for Riverfront Parkway, he started to see the opportunity."
Todd Womack, Corker's communications director in 2002 and his chief of staff for 12 years in Washington, said the first six months under Corker focused solely on implementing campaign promises dealing with crime, economic development, UTC and the airport. The administration implemented the 3-1-1 program and established recruitment bonuses for struggling inner-city schools. Corker's first budget included a 48-cent tax increase.
"We put in place the things on the list in the first six months," Womack said. "He came in the office one day in the fall of 2001 and said, 'You know, guys, we can reload. There are more things we can do. Let's reload.'"
Corker reloaded with a plan to replace the parking lot. He had used his relationships with the administration of Gov. Don Sundquist, where he was commissioner of finance and administration in 1994-95 and had gotten the governor to agree to a road swap during the summer. The swap was announced by Sundquist in the fall of 2001.
Corker took the completed River City plan and made it his own. The city hired Hargreaves and Associates, an urban design firm, and held a community meeting where 300 residents offered input. Corker announced the broad plan in early May to connect the north and south side of the city to pedestrian traffic just weeks before the May 22, 2002, state of the city address.
"We had meetings with all the usual suspects leading up to the May speech, and none were excited," said Hays, "but it didn't matter to Corker. I knew about the plan, but I had no idea he was going to announce a $120 million project and a plan to build it in 35 months. We didn't have a single agreement in place. I was shocked, and that's hard to do."
The Times Free Press' front-page report on the speech featured Corker saying, "Every person, every organization and every community at some point reaches a defining moment. I believe that we have reached one of ours."
"The waterfront is something I know changed the nature of our community," Corker said Tuesday. "We had the aquarium and the convention center. Enterprise South was in process, but nothing was connected. I didn't realize it then, but there was a difference between a physical structure like the aquarium and the physical nature of a community. I think the project changed the physical nature of the city when we came together at the waterfront. "
The new mayor convinced the groups that they should combine their efforts and raise the money collectively, not as four separate entities. The expansion of all three were the centerpieces of the plan that would include building Renaissance Park on the north side of the river and several development parcels that now provide housing, dining and parking on the waterfront.
"Bob's the reason we have the riverfront," said Virginia Anne Sharber, executive director of the Hunter Museum. Corker appointed Sharber to lead a public art committee in 2002 and dedicated 10 percent of the total waterfront budget to the public art present today. "You had three independent bodies looking to do something and he comes in and says, 'Hey, let's do it all together,' and we did."
Half of the 21st Century Waterfront was financed with an October 2002 city bond issue, while Corker led the fundraising team in more than 90 meetings held primarily in the offices of River City. A hotel-motel tax was implemented in 2002 to fund the city's debt service on the bonds, fulfilling a commitment that Corker made that no city tax dollars would be used in the project.
The growth of hotel-motel tax collections provided the funding to make an estimated $6 million in major repairs caused by erosion along the waterfront in 2014 and repairs to the Holmberg Bridge in 2016. Critics said the waterfront was "sinking" because Corker rushed the construction.
"Today, one of the most important things about this whole project to me is that we didn't use taxpayers' money from the general fund, and we set up a revenue stream that covers repairs paid for by visitors while residents will benefit it for decades to come," said Corker.
Womack said Corker was so busy at City Hall during the construction that he spent weekends driving around different projects in the city. He said he estimates the waterfront consumed an average of 20-25 percent of the administration's time through the process.
"The waterfront, for me, was total adrenaline," said Corker, "and then came two-way streets and things just went crazy." In late 2001 and early 2002, the administration decided to make King Boulevard and McCallie Avenue two-way, as they are today. "It wasn't on a list of things to do, we just thought it made sense. We were building the waterfront and I had people with a recall petition going at the same time. Then, there were orange barrels all over the place and people got madder. It was a wild time, but it was so much fun."
Womack and others say no one knows Corker at work better than Mike Compton, who worked alongside Corker in the private sector and then as his chief of staff.
"It was extremely, unbelievably fast-paced, as hard as I ever saw him go," said Compton, now county Mayor Jim Coppinger's chief of staff. "No one knew the Corker way, the way he worked, when we got there in 2001. A lot of people learned, but a lot of people still don't know what happened."
Corker brushes aside any thoughts of measuring his career in Chattanooga versus his time in the Senate.
"You look back, think about today and look to the future and say the outdoors initiative that benefited from the waterfront may end up being the most important thing," said Corker. "All the big things that have been done here are important. The waterfront, though, is something that will be here forever."
Contact Davis Lundy at firstname.lastname@example.org.