Leadership in Chattanooga Points Other Small Cities in the Right Direction
Earlier this month, I participated in a tour of Chattanooga, TN, exploring the physical and economic transformation of this once heavily industrial city on the Tennessee River and at the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains. And this transformation is impressive, especially for a midsize city of 150,000 residents that experienced an economic crisis in the 1980s that threatened to paralyze the city for decades. This included a decline in population and a sharp drop in manufacturing jobs. Much of the urban core was left vacant and the city’s industrial legacy left brownfields, poor air quality, and a lack of green space. Its “turnaround story” can be told through the lens of strong civic leadership, led particularly through the added cohesion of a robust philanthropic sector.
Part of the turnaround story that has happened since is told by the city’s demographic turnaround--Chattanooga is one of the few midsize cities to have experienced a population decline in the 1980s and a population increase already beginning in the 2000s. But the other part of this story is told through the physical transformation of the city and more recent attempts at economic diversification. Projects that emerged in the 1980s, such as the Tennessee Aquarium and the Riverwalk, are well known. Recently, economic diversification has come into its own with an innovation district and an emerging entrepreneurship ecosystem. The city’s recent population upturn is impressive, a story told both through the over 5,000 residential units that will come online just in the city’s Southside neighborhood in the next 36 months, and the statistics that say that the city, at least among its midsize peers, has some of the fastest growing housing costs in the United States. The 2006 location of a Volkswagen manufacturing and research facility in the eastern half of the city doesn’t hurt, and also hints at another trend: a long-awaited increase in the growth of high-paying jobs.
How did this happen?
Though there are many components that came together for Chattanooga, it was the pragmatic capacity building in the city’s institutions that seemed especially important. Beginning in the 1980s, a number of new institutions began to come together to move things forward, and especially to implement many of the economic and environmental plans that began to emerge out of this period. These news institutions included:
- RiverCity Compnay: established in 1986 to bring the river walk and aquarium into fruition, subsequently responsible for much of the development that followed
- Chattanooga Venutre: a public-private partnership established in 1983 to focus efforts on a larger community revitalization agenda beyond the waterfront
These capacity building efforts were supported by a strong sense of civic leadership that allowed the city to both create and execute on its plans. In Chattanooga, this was led by the Lyndhusrt Foundation, which gave cohesion to efforts by a motivated group of public and private sectors. This is doubtless very important in a postindustrial setting such as Chattanooga, where the civic leadership was so concentrated as part of the former heavily industrial economy. In many ways, the city was lucky to have a group of leaders ready to take the torch and to invest in the future of the city at a critical juncture in Chattanooga’s history.
More recently, the foundation community in the city has also supported the growth of local advocacy and nonproft organizations, including recent additions such as the Glass House Collective, which seeks to bring some of the benefits of growth in the center city to more peripheral neighborhoods, and UnifiEd, which seeks to bring a grassroots lens to the improvement of the public education system. These organizations are part of the impressive civil society working in the city for change, such as the Lamp Post Group (a downtown business incubator), LAUNCH (encouraging entrepreneurship among the city’s disadvantaged population), and TechTown (building interest among youth in technology).
These factors set Chattanooga apart from many other midsize former industrial cities that are still struggling to find their groove. The city’s experience also shows that catchy new slogans, phrases, or one big development project are not enough. Such efforts must be backed up by substantive institutional change to give the city capacity to implement new visions and provide space for leaders (public and private) to sustain action through time. That being said, Chattanooga also shows us the lessons of scale: defining unique qualities and adding capacity is easier in smaller cities because the constituency is smaller.
Chattanooga’s leadership story is one that is relevant to both U.S. and European cities alike. This civic leadership ethos and history just might help the city as it attempts to solve its continuing structural issues, most especially a failing public education system and deep economic and spatial segregation between its white and black populations. This will depend on the continuation of the collaborative ethos underpinning the progress the city has experienced thus far, and the willingness of the leaders to continue to experiment, take the risks Chattanooga needs to take, and to continue to put into practice a philosophy of inclusive leadership.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.