Collegedale: Religious roots, diverse growth

Collegedale: Religious roots, diverse growth

May 27th, 2009 by Matt Wilson in News

When Collegedale was incorporated 41 years ago, the population mostly was Seventh-day Adventists, according to Fred Fuller, the city's first mayor.

Now the proportion has dropped to half, he said. But Mr. Fuller is quick to point out that the city wasn't started as some sort of Adventist enclave.

"It was not just to protect Adventists," he said. "It was to protect Baptists, Methodists, whoever."

Since 1968, the city has grown from about 3,000 to nearly 7,500 residents, and it has become home to the county's largest manufacturing employer, McKee Foods Corp. With the new Volkswagen plant coming just across Interstate 75, city officials are gearing up for a big boom.

Current Mayor John Turner, one of a handful of non-Adventist mayors of Collegedale, said the coming growth likely will result in a dilution of the city's religious identity. But, he said, the city's demographics already shifted in the 1990s, when developers built a number of subdivisions in the Collegedale and Ooltewah areas.


Unless otherwise noted, statistics are from the 2000 U.S. Census.

Population: 7,490 (as of 2007)

Median household income: $42,270

Median home value: $127,400

Median age: 28.9

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

"We're really a microcosm of our country in general," Mr. Turner said. "We're really a melting pot."

keeping the "college" in collegedale

The Collegedale community was born in 1916, the year Southern Junior College, now called Southern Adventist University, moved from Graysville, Tenn., to Thatcher Switch in Hamilton County.

"To celebrate their new location, the school ... took the liberty of changing the name of Thatcher Switch to Collegedale," wrote R.S. Mills McArthur in a 2008 Chattanooga Historical Society article about the city.

Collegedale remained unincorporated for decades, but when Chattanooga threatened to annex the community, Mr. Fuller pushed to make Collegedale its own city, he said. His main concern, he said, was the college students' ability to work.

"If the students couldn't work, they would have just had to leave," he said.

In the 1950s, Chattanooga had begun strictly enforcing a citywide blue law that required businesses to close on Sunday. But with the Adventist Sabbath on Saturday, Sunday was one of the only days students had available to work, Mr. Fuller said.

"I decided that we needed to do something about it," he said.

Residents held a meeting in the local fire hall and, after some debate, voted by a 3-to-1 margin to incorporate, according to Mr. McArthur's article.

Tom Stone, 28, said he moved to Collegedale from Washington state two years ago to attend Southern Adventist with his wife.

"The spiritual atmosphere of Southern drew me here," he said.

Mr. Stone said he hasn't really explored much of the city itself, though, because the college is fairly self-contained.

"Everything I need is right here," he said.

annexation, services

Now, it's Collegedale itself that has annexed property and is considering doing more.

"We are discussing that issue," Mr. Turner said. "All those targets have not been defined."

The mayor said officials mainly are looking at commercial properties to annex but, unlike Chattanooga, are not planning to expand all the way to the city's urban growth boundary.

"It's very expensive to annex residential property," Mr. Turner said.

In an interview with the Times Free Press in April, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said Collegedale's recent annexation is a reason Chattanooga should annex out to its growth boundaries as well.

"We need to move in that direction," Mr. Littlefield said.

Mr. Turner said there are no discussions with Chattanooga about establishing the cities' urban footprint.

"I would welcome that opportunity," he said. "Since we're essentially next-door neighbors, it needs to be very well thought out, very well planned, so that all the taxpayers get served properly."

faith and the future

John Nixon, senior pastor of Collegedale Church of Seventh-day Adventists, said he welcomes the growth and diversity that's coming to the city.

"The church exists for the benefit of its nonmembers even more than its members," he said. "We hope that Collegedale itself will become attractive to non-Adventists."

Gordon Bietz, president of Southern Adventist University, agreed that the growth from the Volkswagen plant is welcome, but he said officials need to guide how that growth will happen.

"I'd like to see it not go the way of the strip mall," he said.

Rather, Dr. Bietz said, he'd like Collegedale to retain a "quaint, college town" atmosphere. And he'd rather not see liquor by the drink come to restaurants near his alcohol-free campus.

"I'm not anxious to have it readily available," he said.

Mr. Nixon said Collegedale likely will retain the religious identity that makes it unique.

"Adventists are still a pretty strong and influential group," he said.