Past learning for future plans

Past learning for future plans

May 4th, 2009 in News

How to get involved

You can fill out a survey about what you want for Chattanooga on the Web at, on twitter at and on facebook at

To request written surveys and organize a meeting about the program call 648-6499.

Mayor Ron Littlefield boasts that Chattanooga is the most transformed city in America.

He credits much of the turnaround to a community visioning process launched 25 years ago during the worst recession before today's economic downturn.

"Sometimes the best ideas come out of economic crisis," said Mr. Littlefield, a former city planner and economic developer who headed a group that helped organize Vision 2000.

In a city criticized by some as being controlled by a small group of leaders on Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga began a series of public meetings in 1984 to gather resident dreams for the future. After two years of job and population losses, Chattanoogans were urged to rethink their community.

Nearly 2,000 people answered the call to generate a list of dozens of community projects.

In the process, organizers of Vision 2000 say that Chattanooga rediscovered its riverfront birthplace and its community pride.

"It was truly extraordinary and, I think, helped to change our community and the way people think about Chattanooga," said Gene Roberts, Chattanooga's mayor at the time.

Over the past 25 years, ideas spawned by that first community visioning process helped rally support for everything from a world-class aquarium on the downtown waterfront to a public-private partnership committed to ending substandard housing in Chattanooga.

Now, a new generation of leaders thinks it's time for an updated vision. Nearly 100 community leaders gathered Sunday at the headquarters of CreateHere on Main Street to begin a conversation about the city's future. Participants filled out questionnaires about they like about Chattanooga, what challenges must be addressed and what they would like to see in Chattanooga's future.

Over the next four months, the questions will be put to thousands of area residents, including downtown workers, government employees and high school students.

Josh McManus, the head of CreateHere and one of the organizers, said the new vision process is designed to reach out to the entire community in what is being billed as a "Stand" for Chattanooga.

"The question is, 'What's next for Chattanooga?'" he said.

Organizers say they want thousands of answers from every corner of the region. Vision 2000 relied upon more than 50 group meetings where residents came to share their ideas 25 years ago.

Organizers of the newest planning venture want to attract more than 10 times as many residents as Vision 2000 by going directly to major employer groups and using Internet sites to allow easier and quicker feedback and sharing of ideas.

After gathering surveys through the summer, the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies will compile the responses and identify some of the most important challenges. From there, Stand will try to link people with similar interests to focus on their dreams.

Staff file Photo The Chattanooga skyline is seen in photographs taken from Raccoon Mountain on Wednesday April 22, 2009.

Staff file Photo The Chattanooga skyline is seen in...

"We thought we did extraordinarily well to have as many as we did in 1984, but I know this group wants more than 20,000 to participate," said Mai Bell Hurley, one of those involved in Vision 2000 in 1984. "I just think that is fantastic."

The new visioning process is being led, in part, by a group of graduates from the Chamber of Commerce's Leadership Chattanooga program who studied both Vision 2000 and a Revision 2000 update six years later. The group interviewed those involved in Vision 2000 and helped sort and organize thousands of pages of notes compiled by Chattanooga Venture - a community planning agency created in 1983 - from its meetings in the 1980s.

hatched in hard times

Like the earlier effort, the Stand visioning process is starting in the worst economic environment in decades. But after two decades of investments on Chattanooga's waterfront and Volkswagen's decision last year to build its only American assembly plant in Chattanooga, residents appear to be more upbeat, Mr. McManus said.

More than $2 billion has been invested in and around downtown since the Tennessee Aquarium opened in 1992 and the $1 billion Volkswagen plant is projected eventually to add more than 11,000 jobs to the regional economy.

Such a renaissance was hard to envision in the early 1980s when a double-dip recession battered Chattanooga's manufacturing-based economy and pushed unemployment up to double-digit rates. The self-described "Dynamo of Dixie," where manufacturing once employed one of every three workers, shed more than 20,000 jobs during the 1980s.

"There was a lot of pessimism, defeatism and blaming things on the power structure," recalled former Hamilton County Executive Dalton Roberts.

Even the Tennessee Aquarium initially proved controversial, especially when it was proposed to involve public funding as well as private gifts. But the public support shown for riverfront projects during community meetings - and the ultimate success of the aquarium as Chattanooga's top tourism draw - reshaped public opinion, Dalton Roberts said.

"Vision 2000 helped people recognize that we could have whatever kind of town we wanted if we got involved with others to make it happen," he said.

The idea of conducting a visioning process was spurred by an ambitious call for $750 million of waterfront development by a Moccasin Bend Task Force study done in 1982 and from visits by community leaders to other cities.

In a trip to Indianapolis, Chattanooga business and government leaders discovered a downtown that had been revitalized from "Indian-no-place" to one of the Midwest's most attractive cities. The Lily Foundation helped finance much of the arts, sports and recreational upgrades through the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee.

foundation of support

To bring such ideas to Chattanooga, the Lyndhurst Foundation helped create Chattanooga Venture. Three years later in 1986, eight local foundations and seven financial institutions put up $12 million to establish the RiverCity Co. to serve as a downtown development agency.

RiverCity assembled property and helped design and plan new projects. In a few instances, RiverCity also was the owner or developer of projects, including Miller Plaza and a 12-screen theater complex now under construction on Broad Street.

Over the past two decades, Benwood, Tonya and other foundations and individual donors have pumped more than $200 million into downtown attractions, parks and art.

Those projects included much of the $120 million 21st Century Waterfront, which opened in 2005, along with the previously built $45 million Tennessee Aquarium, $28 million Finley Stadium, $18 million Children's Discovery Museum, $16 million Imax Theater, $6 million visitors center and nearly $50 million of downtown and riverfront parks. Those investments have spurred nearly $2 billion of other government and private investments in the central city.

"We're extraordinarily blessed with the foundation wealth in this community," Gene Roberts said. "The support of the foundations and some business donors was key to making a lot of what we did get done."

immediate success

But Vision 2000 also spurred grass-roots campaigns for downtown revival.

Individual donors were key to raising money to preserve the Walnut Street Bridge. The Tennessee Department of Transportation wanted to tear down the century-old span, but Vision 2000 helped rally public support to raise contributions and convince authorities to turn the bridge into what is now the world's longest pedestrian bridge over water.

"There had been people pushing for years to do something with the Walnut Street Bridge, but until the Venture process showed that this was something people would get behind, doing it was not going to happen," Mr. Littlefield said. "Saving the Walnut Street Bridge was an early success and really energized both sides of our riverfront."

Ms. Hurley said Vision 2000 "really changed the way we make decisions in Chattanooga."

"It was the trigger for some very creative new ideas that we then found a way to get people to come together and find resources to make things happen," she said. "That's why it is so exciting to see that kind of an effort being started up again by a whole new group of people."