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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke speaks during a ribbon cutting for the Blue Goose Hollow development project on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The development at Blue Goose Hollow, known for being the birthplace of Bessie Smith, was made possible because of a $3.5 million agreement between the City, Highalnd Building Group and Evergreen Real Estate, and will complete connections between Chattanooga's downtown core and the Tennessee River, which City and Hamilton County officials say will enhance public space along the Riverwalk and stimulate private investment of commercial and residential spaces in Chattanooga's West Side.

In his final State of the City address, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke reflected Thursday on eight years of progress, colored by historic challenges, in the city.

Berke, the city's 65th mayor who will end his second and final term in April, delivered the address to a nearly empty Tivoli Theatre downtown, broadcasting virtually for the second year in a row due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He highlighted the importance of opportunity and choices for Chattanoogans, recalling a line from his first such address in 2013.

"Speaking to you as one recession was ending, I said that we were at our best when we empower every Chattanoogan to write her own story," he said. "I could not know then what the ensuing years would bring. A terrorism attack. A devastating bus crash. A tornado. A multi-day water outage. A global pandemic. Another recession. A reckoning with racial injustice."

"Yet, here I stand again, and return today to the words I uttered eight years ago. When we ensure that every Chattanoogan has the tools and the power to write her own story, we change the arc of our city."

Despite the challenges the city faced during his time in office, Berke still boasts progress in economic growth, combating homelessness and other issues including:

Decreasing gang violence.

— Creating 2,000 new affordable housing units.

Reaching a "functional zero" level of homelesss veterans.

Attracting significant new jobs and promoting economic development through projects such as the Nippon Paint plant.

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Copy of Mayor Berke's 2021 State of the City address

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Berke compared the city's ability to not only withstand challenges but to thrive during turbulent times to the story of Jacob in Genesis.

"In Genesis, we learn that Jacob has lived a difficult life. Fleeing problems with his family, he encounters his brother Esau, who wants to kill him. One night, in his dreams, Jacob wrestles with a stranger who cripples him with a blow to the hip, an injury that will stay with Jacob the rest of his life. But Jacob fights until morning, eventually prevailing over the angel," Berke said. "When he awakens, God comes to him and asks his name. God then blesses Jacob and renames him 'Israel,' which means champion over angels and men. Now with God's consecration, Jacob goes on to be one of our most important Biblical ancestors."

Similarly, Berke said, Chattanooga has persevered.

"Our struggles are real, but so are our blessings. Over the years, even when tragedy struck our city, as it did more than once, I have taken refuge in our unyielding promise and the wisdom of our forebearers. That is one reason why, despite the unrelenting headwinds we face right now, I know we will still travel far," Berke said. "My optimism also comes from seeing what good government can really do for people when it listens, responds, and innovates. I was born in the era when Walter Cronkite infamously identified Chattanooga as the dirtiest city in America. Now, our pristine natural beauty graces the covers of magazines and newspapers across the globe."

And Berke attributes that change to an emphasis on citizen involvement and power.

"So it has been. And so it will be. We are the architects of our own renewal," he said. "That progress begins when we put more power in the hands of our residents. It has been my mission, and that of city government, to make sure Chattanoogans have the power to live their lives as they see fit, to write their own stories, to journey wherever their talent and determination takes them."

Going forward, Berke — who has declined to endorse a successor or announce his career or political plans — said that he has worked to lead Chattanooga to an even stronger phase of growth.

"As I leave here tonight, I hope that I have helped make it a little more likely that Chattanoogans can write their own story. To pray where and how they want. To enjoy the place where they live. To work hard but also be able to spend time with loved ones. To raise their children to be independent and happy," Berke said. "It has not been perfect, and it has not been easy. But, like Jacob, I feel my blessing.

"I love this city. Thank you for the honor of serving as your mayor. As always, the next chapter of our story will be our best."

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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