Almost a year ago, in August 2014, we used this space to talk about Chattanooga, Tenn., making national headlines for its ultra high-speed Internet service, delivered via fiber-optic wiring done by its municipally owned electric provider.
At the time, we talked about Chattanooga, with about 530,000 people in its metro area, being a logical peer city for Colorado Springs. The confirmation came last week during the annual Regional Leaders Trip. The main destination was Nashville, Tenn., but more than 20 Springs leaders took a bus to Chattanooga and checked out the city in person.
They spent most of the day in meetings, hearing various Chattanooga leaders talk about the city’s up-and-down story, beginning with a CBS newscast by Walter Cronkite in 1969 calling it the “dirtiest city in America” because of air pollution from the steel industry. By the 1980s, as one official put it, “We were watching our city die around us.”
Eventually, Chattanooga started a comeback, beginning when philanthropist Jack Lupton donated most of the initial $45 million to build a downtown aquarium, which opened in 1992. Skeptics called it “Jack’s Fish Tank,” but the Tennessee Aquarium caught on and thrives today with an IMAX theater and about 1 million visitors a year. If you want to draw parallels to our Olympic Museum, go right ahead.
Also, the city built a downtown minor-league baseball park, as well as a modest convention center. The University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, about the size of our UCCS, has a 20,000-seat football stadium, as well as a 12,000-seat arena.
The biggest moment came in 2008 when Volkswagen decided to put a major assembly plant there for its Passat brand, bringing 2,700 jobs when it opened in 2011 and luring many smaller companies as suppliers. At the time, a Volkswagen executive from Germany described Chattanooga with words that civic leaders have never forgotten: “This city makes the intangibles tangible.” An upcoming addition, building SUVs, will bring 2,000 more jobs, including more than 200 engineers.
We can learn many lessons from Chattanooga. Colorado Springs Utilities might try to provide supersonic Internet service for manufacturers, higher education and other businesses. Also, not everything takes 20 years to reach fruition, because Chattanooga went from zero dollars of venture capital just four years ago (sound familiar?) to about $40 million today.
Next, there’s the idea of thinking and acting regionally. Chattanooga, in a coalition called Thrive 2055, works with a group totaling 49 cities in 16 counties and parts of three states (Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia) with 1 million in population, combining forces for economic development, transportation, education and more.
The city’s leaders also know and share the same message about its history, mission and identity, using such catch-phrases as “the great little city that could” and “one of the world’s smartest cities.” And they have the same priorities as Colorado Springs, nurturing more affordable housing and stronger workforce.
One result: Many of Chattanooga’s young adults, who for decades left for college and never came back, now are returning to their hometown, either to decent jobs or to develop start-ups and other small businesses of their own.
Chattanooga’s mayor, Andy Berke, summed it up, thanking Colorado Springs for the visit and saying, “We need, all across America, for mid-sized communities like ours to succeed.”
We couldn’t agree more.