Cook: Don't be so cool in 2018

Cook: Don't be so cool in 2018

December 31st, 2017 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

VML Creative Director Betsy Jemas begins her paddle Thursday, July 20, 2017, on the Tennessee River at the Market Street Bridge in Chattanooga, Tenn. A team of three from VML participated in various outdoor events in the Chattanooga area as part of a new Snapchat channel that the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development created to attract people to the many things to do in Tennessee.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

In 2017, we were cool. Really cool.

We hosted Ironman. Four times.

We continued the swanky rebuild of downtown, with nearly $1 billion invested in downtown commercial space, condos and hotels, including a new Westin with a $2,500 suite.

We began the renovation of Miller Park.

There are new bike lanes, vegetarian restaurants and more than 50,000 Airbnb rentals. In 2017, so many people gushed.

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

"One of America's most underrated cities," Money Inc. proclaimed.

"The unique Southern city remains an underrated pleasure to explore," Food and Wine promised.

"Super cool," declared Expedia.

On Christmas Eve, I spoke to a man from England who moved here to open his consulting firm.

"You could have gone anywhere in the world," I said.

"Yes," he acknowledged. "And we came here."

There are many stories like this and many reasons why: the glitzy, reborn downtown, the inviting water and land around us, the Tennessee Aquarium, the Gig. There's also precise strategy: the city contracts with a public relations firm — Development Counsellors International — to, among many things, invite journalists to travel here and write about Chattanooga's coolness.

"A packed itinerary of 14-hour whirls through the city's brightest and shiniest locales, where every detail is planned down to the minute, and interviews with people not on the tour are discouraged," writes Valerie Vande Panne.

Her essay is called "Welcome to the MultiMillion Dollar Business of Selling U.S. Cities" and should be required reading for the hidden ways we promote and peddle our coolness.

"Twenty-five to 50 percent of my job is sales," Mayor Andy Berke — definitely a cool politician — told Panne. "The marketing is done by the Chamber. I'm the person they wind up to talk to people like you."

Just like other U.S. cities, Chattanooga is fighting a cold war for tourist dollars; our unending rebranding and remarketing is a hamster wheel of attention. Come here. Play here. Stay here. Our downtown's become a perpetual host, a never- sleeping geisha to tourists and investors.

I wonder: When did the rest of us agree to this?

Is this a foundation of sand? What happens when the money dries up?

And are we losing our city in the process?

Here's why being so cool is actually uncool.

-Cities aren't meant to be marketed.

The purpose of a city isn't tourism. It's to provide life and health to its citizens. In the bidding war for shiny, happy people — that's what tourism is — city government diverges from its real purpose, which is not, as Berke said, "sales." A stone's throw from the Westin are forgotten homeless camps, now torn down, and College Hill Courts, with government housing that's the exact opposite of a $2,500 hotel suite. Where's the marketing campaign for them?

-Cities aren't meant to be monetized.

Our outdoor tourism operates on the principle that more use is better. It monetizes land, sky and water. More climbers equal more money. More mountain bikers equal more money. But what about the impact on the land? What's the tipping point for our rocks and waters and trails? How much is too much? The Chamber doesn't seem interested in these questions.

-Cities aren't meant to be branded.

In the pursuit of coolness, authenticity is lost. And authenticity is the lifeblood of a place.

"It appears we're becoming a hybrid of Dallas and Portland," one friend said. "Yuck."

My friend? He's an old bar-stool buddy. Like some of you, he's not so sure our urban coolness is an altogether good thing.

"Think about how tiresome a hipster is, then multiply that to city scale," he continued. "It's a marketing campaign that ultimately will alienate a lot of Chattanoogans."

-Most of all, cities aren't supposed to lie.

This fairytale version of our city glosses over so much of what actually happens in Chattanooga. The blood and violence. The sweat and suffering. The tears and grim misery. There are a thousand stories like this: I heard recently of one downtown family living without water. They have to squat in the backyard. They drink from their neighbor's tap. Apparently, their landlord won't lift a finger.

In 2018, let's be less cool.

And more honest.


And wise.

"I have a friend in Asheville who lives there and never goes downtown because it's such a circus," my friend concluded. "If Chattanooga goes that route, we will have killed the goose that laid the golden egg."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfree or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315