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
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
KIM CALLS TRUMP A “DOTARD”
North Korea Threatens H-Bomb Test Over Pacific
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"North Korea said on Friday it might test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean after President Donald Trump vowed to destroy the reclusive country, with leader Kim Jong Un promising to make Trump pay dearly for his threats. Kim did not specify what action he would take against the United States or Trump, whom he called a 'mentally deranged U.S. dotard' in the latest bout of insults the two leaders have traded in recent weeks."

Source:
INFORMS CONGRESS RE: EXECUTIVE ORDER
Trump Makes Good on Promise of New North Korea Sanctions
1 days ago
THE LATEST

President Trump this afternoon announced another round of sanctions on North Korea, calling the regime "a continuing threat." The executive order, which Trump relayed to Congress, bans any ship or plane that has visited North Korea from visiting the United States within 180 days. The order also authorizes sanctions on any financial institution doing business with North Korea, and permits the secretaries of State and the Treasury to sanction any person involved in trading with North Korea, operating a port there, or involved in a variety of industries there.

SOUTH KOREA WILL SEND AID
Trump Promises More Sanctions on North Korea
2 days ago
THE LATEST

In response to a reporter's question, President Trump said "he’ll be looking to impose further financial penalties on North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic tests. ... The U.N. has passed two resolutions recently aimed at squeezing the North Korean economy by cutting off oil, labor and exports to the nation." Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that South Korea's unification ministry is sending an $8m aid package aimed at infants and pregnant women in North Korea. The "humanitarian gesture [is] at odds with calls by Japan and the US for unwavering economic and diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang."

Source:
HIGHLIGHT ISSUES FACING KIDS
FLOTUS to Speak at UN Luncheon
3 days ago
THE LATEST
PRESSES CASE FOR REFORMS
Trump Meets with UN Leaders
3 days ago
THE LATEST

President Trump on Tuesday night met with UN Secretary Guterres and President of the General Assembly Miroslav Lajcak. In both cases, as per releases from the White House, Trump pressed them on the need to reform the UN bureaucracy.

×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login