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Staff Photo By Robin Rudd / Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Christy Gillenwater explains the goals of the agency's new "Chattanooga Climbs" program.

The stereotypical historical view of any plan coming out of a chamber of commerce is a business-heavy, top-down, our-way-is-best blueprint.

However, that type of plan was dispatched by the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce some years ago. So its recently launched five-year "Chattanooga Climbs" economic plan is anything but a big-footed, paternalistic document. Instead, it will rely on community collaborators such as the Hamilton County public schools, higher education institutions, businesses, entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens to help accomplish its goals.

Even the plan itself grew out of the chamber's long-range "Velocity 2040," the goals of which were set by more than a year of community meetings and studies on what Chattanoogans wanted and expected over the next 20 years.

Among the goals of the "Chattanooga Climbs" economic development strategy are:

* $1 billion in capital investment

* $500 million in new payroll at area businesses

* A $55,000 average annual wage

One of the aspects we appreciate — and involved Chattanoogans should expect — about such a broad plan is a real-time data dashboard covering the economy, demographics, education, health, transportation and inclusion.

In other words, when the dashboard goes live — and chamber officials say it's still in development — it will be an easily accessible online way in which the public can keep up to date on how the plan is doing in capital investment, new payroll, average annual wage and a number of other goals the group has set forth.

For instance, "Chattanooga Climbs" also foresees:

* Evaluating 500 acres of greenfield and brownfield sites for potential employers

* Recruiting 100 business incubator clients and 100 incubator graduates

* Securing 100 business prospect visits

* 20 locations or expansions of projects involving the area's target industries such as automotive, specialty food and freight services.

We see the data dashboard as the chamber's version of 1980s New York City Mayor Ed Koch's trademark question of "How am I doing?"

One of the chamber's most important partners in the plan is the county schools. Achieving two of the plan's key metrics of "becoming future ready" and "creating economic mobility for all" requires the school district to turn out students either with the skills to take the jobs that will offer them productive careers and a high quality of life or the ability to acquire those skills through training programs or higher education.

The chamber's plan envisions that "regardless of race, age or location, residents can access quality education at all levels" and that all residents be able "to fully participate and thrive in the modern digital economy."

The school district, with impetus from the ongoing chamber program "Chattanooga 2.0," is hard at work at such ends with its Future Ready Institutes and its various early college tie-ins.

Indeed, "Chattanooga Climbs" names as an important cog in its talent development sector the district's 28 Future Ready Institutes. At the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, nearly 1,300 students signed up for the then-20 Future Ready Institutes in their first year of existence. But of the nearly 1,300 students, only about 70 were enrolled out of zone.

For the program to be truly effective, and to play a larger part in the future economy envisioned by "Chattanooga Climbs," low-income students, especially, will need to have transportation to the schools that have programs that lead to careers in which they see themselves working toward a productive career and high quality of life.

At the 2018 roll-out of Future Ready Institutes, Hamilton County Schools officials acknowledged that need but have not yet been able to fill it.

It's evident, too, that the district's struggling schools in its Opportunity Zone must improve in order that, as "Chattanooga Climbs" envisions, all residents fully participate and thrive in the economy of the next five years. That will be one critical way in which the chamber's goal of an "inclusive economy" is realized.

Two other bold ways in which the chambers eyes achieving that goal are a re-entry training program for formerly incarcerated individuals and embedded training programs in low-income/high employment areas.

On the other end of the economic scale, the chamber also visualizes a new University of Tennessee at Chattanooga health care and biosciences facility to take advantage of what it believes is an investment target field for the area and a new investment capital fund of between $10 and $20 million to help both locally grown start-ups and established relocating entrepreneurs.

A UTC facility will require state investment, and a new capital fund will need wealthy individuals to see how their money might be the key to an even stronger future Chattanooga.

All in all, it's not your father's chamber plan. But it is one that envisions boldly and demands the help of many in order that the area is able to grow together for all.

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