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Staff File Photo / The next Chattanooga mayor will have a number of opportunities, including breaking ground like outgoing Mayor Andy Berke did at this downtown ceremony in 2019.

In two and half weeks, Chattanoogans will know either the name of their next mayor or which two contestants will be in an April runoff for the city's top elected post.

No two of the 15 candidates offer the same experience or hold the exact same position on the various issues that face our city.

And none of the candidates advocates maintaining the status quo. That's not a shot at the outgoing Andy Berke administration, which brought its own set of new ideas to the office eight years ago, but a sense that the city is ready for new, out-of-the-box thinking.

Perhaps it's COVID fatigue — the desire we've all had for 11 months to return to the active, engaged life we once enjoyed — but the candidates envision the city's emergence from the virus with fresh eyes.

The candidates have their specific plans, but we've been interested to see some of the same themes bubble up from the different campaigns. Three of the areas in which those ideas coalesce are affordable housing, education and workforce training, and the role of the city's youth and family development centers. We'll look at more next Sunday.

- Affordable housing: It's not the city's job to provide housing for each of its citizens, but most of the mayoral candidates say the city should be involved in the process to create more of it. That ranges from housing for the homeless to those who don't own their houses to those who own their houses but can't afford to improve them.

Both Chris Long and Elenora Woods, for instance, envision a multi-acre site in which the city would partner to create a dormitory-like center where basic amenities would be available for homeless individuals. But, depending on the candidate's plans, the facility also might have mailboxes, internet availability and presence of other professionals to enable those who stay there to get back on their feet.

For those already in their homes, various candidates suggest rent-to-own programs. Meanwhile, many candidates say public/private partnerships with developers are the key to building new affordable housing. Tim Kelly says that could involve the city's already existing but little-used land bank. Long suggests special zoning and the reduction of certain regulations could help. Robert Wilson proposes a tax-forgiveness program. Kim White and Erskine Oglesby stress the importance of getting vacant properties the city owns back on the tax rolls.

Woods would bring in pre-fabricated houses, while Long recommends that local employees manufacture micro-housing to help fill the bill.

Unfortunately, said Wilson, "all we do is talk about creating affordable housing."

The city's new mayor should find a way to turn "talk" into action.

- Education/training: With an eye toward building a stronger and more diverse middle class, many candidates advocate either a partnership with the Hamilton County Schools district to build a robust trades center or one the city would develop with other partners.

Long, in particular, sees the need for both a partnership with the schools and a separate training center the city might run with private partners. It is imperative, he believes, to have such training so county residents will be able to take future jobs when Volkswagen ramps up its electric car program.

Though the city is not in the school business per se, several candidates emphasize the need to strengthen education of the youngest minds.

White would continue the Berke administration's Office of Early Childhood Education and expand seats and scholarships, as well as explore options for more flexible schedules in current centers and for workplace child care. Wade Hinton also would expand early learning scholarships and would like to see an early learning curriculum standardized across the city. Similarly, Oglesby says he'd go further than Berke in pushing the importance of programs for children from pre-natal to first grade. Kelly would like to see a local expansion of the federal Head Start program.

"We have to improve [education] by any means necessary," Kelly said.

- Youth/Family Development Centers: Many of the candidates say the centers renamed from recreation centers by Berke are underutilized. Monty Bruell said the changed name "wrung all the fun out of parks and recreation" and wants to see a return to more recreation. Oglesby said the centers should help "wean [children, teens and young adults] from being on the couch."

Various candidates eye the centers for training, summer camps, and nutrition, apprenticeship, tutoring, STEM, and youth policing programs. White would like to see the centers' reading program align better with that in Hamilton County Schools.

"We have to be intentional about solving our issues," says Woods.

Since this is the broadest, most diverse, most experienced field of mayoral candidates perhaps in the city's history, we hope whoever is the next mayor will sit down with some of his or her opponents, listen and take seriously their out-of-the-box ideas for improving the city. Because more than the Biden presidential administration and more than the Lee gubernatorial administration, the next mayoral administration will have a bigger influence on your future.

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