The Chattanooga NAACP is denouncing the city's proposed Business Improvement District, likening the proposal to Jim Crow laws.
On Tuesday, NAACP First Vice President George Calhoun spoke outside of the City Council building before the council's regular Tuesday night meeting, during which the reintroduced resolution to form a special district of property owners in downtown Chattanooga was set to be heard on first reading.
The district, a property owner-funded district in Chattanooga's city center that would have access to business promotion resources, mimicking thousands of similar districts across the country, would provide $1 million annually to support services designed to make the area cleaner and safer, with enhanced beautification and other special projects in a portion of Chattanooga's District 7.
In a news release before the meeting, the NAACP said the proposed district indicated classism and racism and would undo progress by the African-American community, namely students of Howard High School who opposed segregation in the 1960s.
"Frankly, we feel that whoever brought this legislation forward should be ashamed, because it takes Chattanooga back so many years," Calhoun said, saying that adding these resources to just some of Chattanooga would create a divide among citizens. "We fought so hard to get to where we are and we're not about to sit back and let people separate folks."
After failing due to a lack of a second at a heated council meeting earlier this month, the original proposal for the district raised by a petition of affected property owners has been amended and reintroduced as a council resolution.
Additions to the original ordinance include a requirement for the business improvement district board to adhere to state open meetings law, mandatory audits, removal of liability for the city and language changes that exempt all government properties from the district.
Calhoun said that the NAACP does not support the proposal even as amended, and will not support it under any possible changes. Rather, Calhoun believes the city should invest in improvements through government resources.
"I think the whole idea needs to go away. You've got people in the city [and] that's their responsibility to take care of and improve the beauty of the city if you want to do that," Calhoun said. "What they need to do is get behind those folks and get them to do a better job of what they're supposed to be doing. We don't need a separate ordinance."
At the council's 3 p.m. agenda planning session, District 9 Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod questioned claims that the district would deter black residents from being downtown.
"People that look like me, meaning black individuals, seem to think that the creation of the [district] means black people can't come downtown or that blacks won't be able to afford to live downtown, but we know how that story is constantly told," Coonrod said. "But I know one thing I'm getting tired of is the plight of black people being used when it comes to those conversations. The immediate fallback is that 'Well, black people can't do this or black people can't do that.' Well, we can come downtown."
Coonrod also encouraged black citizens to come downtown more.
"There's black people walking downtown all the time. I'm down here as often as I get the chance and I always feel welcome," she said. "If there's anybody who's black and feels like they can't come, let's roll together. We'll walk the streets together, because we have to get out of the mindset that we're not open."
The councilwoman also had the city attorney clarify that none of the services listed in the ordinance or relevant state code singled out the black community and also clarified that at least two businesses in the district are black-owned.
Despite the changes, Calhoun says it has the same meaning and the NAACP will not support it.
The council deferred the agenda item and will vote on an ordinance reintroducing the issue on Tuesday at 6 p.m., according to Chairman and District 7 Councilman Erskine Oglesby.
If it is approved and follows the tentative schedule, the public hearing and final vote will be on July 23 at 6 p.m.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at email@example.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @sarahgtaylor.