Is Obama Right About Chattanooga?

On the heels of a presidential visit touting the local economy, new mayor Andy Berke says, “Now is our time.”

National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
Aug. 19, 2013, 4:24 a.m.

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

The may­or of Chat­tanooga wants his city to be­come the tech­no­logy hub of the South­east — even if that’s not the im­age most Amer­ic­ans would as­sign to this mid-sized city along the Ten­ness­ee River. But sur­pris­ingly, Chat­tanooga boasts some of the fast­est In­ter­net speeds in the coun­try. Volk­swa­gen and Amazon opened plants or ware­houses here in the past three years, and sev­er­al small, quirky com­pan­ies such as Pure Soda­works, Vari­able, and Sup­ply Hog have sprung to life, all star­ted by loc­als.

For May­or Andy Berke, all of this serves as evid­ence that Chat­tanooga can and will re­cast it­self as a home for in­nov­at­ive com­pan­ies: a place for res­id­ents who think bey­ond the con­fines of a 9-to-5 job. (The 45-year-old may­or, who’s been in of­fice for just over 100 days, even ap­poin­ted the city’s first in­nov­a­tion of­ficer.)

Na­tion­al Journ­al sat down with Berke to talk about Chat­tanooga’s man­u­fac­tur­ing past and its fu­ture eco­nomy, as well as Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­cent vis­it to a loc­al Amazon ware­house, where he touted the cre­ation of middle-class jobs. Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low.

I keep hear­ing from res­id­ents and eco­nom­ic-de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cials here that Chat­tanooga is the next tech hub, like a mini-Sil­ic­on Val­ley or Bo­ston.

I’m try­ing to get away from that. In the past, we’ve called ourselves the ‘Boulder of the South.’ Then, the next Aus­tin. All kinds of com­par­is­ons. My man­tra has been: Now is our time. Let’s not worry about what oth­ers are do­ing. Let’s be proud of where we are and take ad­vant­age of all of our op­por­tun­it­ies.

Chat­tanooga now has some of the fast­est In­ter­net speeds in the U.S., be­cause the loc­al util­ity com­pany in­stalled a fiber-net­work sys­tem throughout the city, but has that ac­tu­ally led to the cre­ation of prof­it­able start-ups, or is this tech eco­nomy idea more as­pir­a­tion­al?

I don’t want to say it’s mostly as­pir­a­tion­al be­cause there are people here do­ing great work. We have bur­geon­ing in­dus­tries re­ly­ing on the tech world here. For that to suc­ceed, part of that, for me, is that we have to think about ourselves as a place where high-tech com­pan­ies come and grow. The self-con­cep­tion part really is im­port­ant. It tells people who may have an idea but that haven’t been in the tech world be­fore: There is a path to get this done. The more suc­cess we have, the more we will see ourselves as a con­nec­ted city.

What do you want the eco­nomy here to look like after your first four-year-term?

The South has a sig­ni­fic­ant man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pon­ent. The last num­bers I saw were that our metro area has roughly 22 per­cent man­u­fac­tur­ing versus a na­tion­al av­er­age that is more like 10 or 11 per­cent. Be­cause of Volk­swa­gen, that is strength for Chat­tanooga, and I al­ways be­lieve we should build on our strengths. By the same token, we know that a grow­ing com­pon­ent of jobs will be high­er skilled. We need great­er col­lege at­tain­ment in or­der to have the jobs of the fu­ture. Part of that is also bring­ing in in­dus­tries that seek out high­er-skilled jobs, and I think the Gig ini­ti­at­ive [the high-speed In­ter­net sys­tem] is a great way for us to do that.

One oth­er com­pon­ent: Ten­ness­ee has in the past been 50th in new-busi­ness cre­ation. We ac­tu­ally are 51st, but when you tell people that, they look at you crazy be­cause we’re be­hind Wash­ing­ton D.C., as well. The en­tre­pren­eur­ship com­pon­ent of our city is crit­ic­al. We were built on the found­ing of new busi­nesses, like Coca Cola bot­tling, Chat­tem, and Un­um. I can see a re­turn to those times, and that will be the next phase to our city.

What about jobs for the low-skilled work­ers? I can’t tell where they fit in­to this pic­ture.

Yes­ter­day I was read­ing a Third Way policy piece that said the av­er­age 40-year-old male without a col­lege de­gree earns 12 per­cent less today than he did in 1980, ad­jus­ted for in­fla­tion. This is a prob­lem. So there are two ap­proaches. One is the edu­ca­tion piece: We have to have high­er at­tain­ment. The second part of that is look­ing for op­por­tun­it­ies that will help all areas of our eco­nomy. You look at the dis­tri­bu­tion jobs here which have been grow­ing.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­cent trip to Chat­tanooga to an Amazon ware­house caught some flak na­tion­ally be­cause Amazon has been cri­ti­cized for not pay­ing de­cent wages to its work­ers and sub­ject­ing them to some poor work­ing con­di­tions. Did you think this cri­ti­cism of the Chat­tanooga plant was fair? Are those de­cent middle-class jobs?

The pres­id­ent came to Amazon to talk about a bet­ter bar­gain for the middle class. The jobs at Amazon are a piece of that puzzle. It’s not the only piece, but Amazon has been a con­trib­ut­or to thou­sands of people in Chat­tanooga. We would nev­er look down on that. It’s a grow­ing com­pany; in our cur­rent eco­nomy, we should treas­ure that suc­cess.

Most tech hubs are based in pretty lib­er­al states, like Cali­for­nia or Mas­sachu­setts or New York. Do you ever worry that the polit­ics of liv­ing in red state would scare off people in­ter­ested in that kind of work and in the tech eco­nomy?

I don’t think so. People make choices for lots of dif­fer­ent reas­ons, one of which is life­style. The Chat­tanooga life­style is based less on polit­ics and more on our sur­round­ing — great out­doors, fant­ast­ic qual­ity of life, a tre­mend­ous friend­li­ness. That, to me, is much more im­port­ant than any Demo­crat’s dis­com­fort with be­ing in a red state. I am a Demo­crat, and I love here. It also hasn’t been a red state forever. In 2006, we had a Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor who won 95 counties. We had Har­old Ford. He came with­in 48,000 votes of be­ing a U.S. sen­at­or. That’s sev­en years ago, so polit­ic­al trends come and they go.

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