Chattanooga’s Makeover Secret: A River Runs Through It

Once the dirtiest place in America, the city turned itself around by developing a scenic riverfront.

National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
Aug. 19, 2013, 7:40 p.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on Chat­tanooga. 

CHAT­TANOOGA—If a vis­it­or stands on top of Lookout Moun­tain just out­side the city lim­its, Chat­tanooga’s most prom­in­ent fea­ture in­stantly be­comes vis­ible. It’s the Ten­ness­ee River, snak­ing through down­town.

The river does not just add aes­thet­ic beauty or re­cre­ation to this city of roughly 170,000 people. It also lies at the cen­ter of Chat­tanooga’s re­vital­iz­a­tion ef­fort, so much so that one non­profit in town, de­voted to de­vel­op­ment, is called the River City Com­pany. Many of the city’s best at­trac­tions, like the aquar­i­um, art mu­seum, and walk­ing bridge sit with­in yards of the ri­verb­ank.

Chat­tanooga’s abil­ity to re­cog­nize and cap­it­al­ize on the river­front, ar­gu­ably its best nat­ur­al as­set, fueled much of its comeback over the last 20 years, ac­cord­ing to a Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion 2008 case study about Chat­tanooga and oth­er suc­cess­ful post-in­dus­tri­al cit­ies.

The think tank stud­ied the way 17 out of 302 strug­gling smal­ler cit­ies man­aged to prop them­selves up after dec­ades of los­ing out eco­nom­ic­ally and found that unique char­ac­ter­ist­ics, like a river, great urb­an plan­ning, or loc­al lead­er­ship, helped to boost the eco­nomy in Chat­tanooga and places like Chica­go, Du­luth, Spokane, and Louis­ville. The river helped to dis­tin­guish Chat­tanooga in par­tic­u­lar, the re­port says, much the way Louis­ville be­ne­fit­ted from its cent­ral loc­a­tion, or Ak­ron, Ohio, from its ex­pert­ise in a cer­tain type of man­u­fac­tur­ing.

Just as sig­ni­fic­antly, the river made down­town Chat­tanooga hip: a place for res­id­ents and tour­ists to hang out, walk around, and spend money. Dav­id Penn, an eco­nom­ist at Middle Ten­ne­see State Uni­versity, vis­ited the city one Labor Day week­end in re­cent years only to be sur­prised by the crowds near the aquar­i­um. “In terms of mak­ing it a place people want to live, city of­fi­cials have done that,” he says.

Over the last 20 years, Chat­tanooga’s non­profits, politi­cians, and private cit­izens have made Chat­tanooga more ap­peal­ing by con­struct­ing new parks, walk­ing paths, and tour­ist at­trac­tions at dif­fer­ent vant­age points along­side the river. This is from a city best known in the late 1960s as the dirti­est place in the coun­try, thanks to all of its air pol­lu­tion caused by its man­u­fac­tur­ing base.

Now, the Ten­ness­ee River Park goes on for 22 miles with jog­ging and bik­ing paths; spots to fish and boat; and scen­ic over­passes. This was one of the first pro­jects centered on the wa­ter, an idea first hatched in the 1980s; on a re­cent Thursday af­ter­noon, sev­er­al res­id­ents strolled or jogged along on stretch of the park.

In 1993, the city also made a cru­cial move to turn a ma­jor bridge, once open for car traffic and slated for de­moli­tion, in­to a walk­ing bridge. The icon­ic blue Wal­nut Street Bridge now con­nects down­town Chat­tanooga to the north­ern area of the city: an­oth­er bur­geon­ing neigh­bor­hood of res­taur­ants, con­dos, beer gar­dens, boutiques, a gour­met hot­dog lunch spot, and the Chat­tanooga Theatre Cen­ter.

The city’s fi­nal ma­jor push to redo its wa­ter­front happened in the mid-2000s, un­der the lead­er­ship then-May­or Bob Cork­er, now a U.S. Sen­at­or from Ten­ness­ee. This $120 mil­lion ef­fort ad­ded a new build­ing to the aquar­i­um com­plex; ex­pan­ded the foot­print of the art mu­seum; cre­ated a new city pier; and ad­ded many ped­es­tri­an areas that ul­ti­mately re­shaped 129 acres in down­town, ac­cord­ing to the Chat­tanooga Area Cham­ber of Com­merce. Half of the $120 mil­lion in funds came from private dona­tions; the oth­er half came from the sale of some pub­licly owned prop­er­ties and an in­crease in the taxes on ho­tels and mo­tels.

For now, Chat­tanooga’s new may­or, Andy Berke, re­mains fo­cused on di­ver­si­fy­ing the eco­nomy and try­ing to jump start a tech sec­tor here. Even the CEO of River City Com­pany, Kim White sees the next stage in the de­vel­op­ment of Chat­tanooga as boost­ing the down­town hous­ing stock, or con­nect­ing more neigh­bor­hoods to down­town. “I don’t think the next thing has to be on the river,” she says.

And, what ad­vice can White of­fer to oth­er com­munit­ies that want to emu­late Chat­tanooga’s 20-plus year pro­ject to re­make the land­scape around its river? White, a nat­ive res­id­ent, says the key points are to in­volve the com­munity and to find money from private found­a­tions or in­di­vidu­als as op­posed to tax dol­lars. But, as most im­port­ant part, she says, is to have a plan that in­volves as many res­id­ents as pos­sible and not just a lone city of­fi­cial. “Hav­ing a plan pro­tects you from dif­fer­ent ad­min­is­tra­tions’ fo­cus, which can change every four years,” she says. “A plan is big­ger than any one.”

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