Having seen rapid growth for decades, in the mid-20th century, Chattanooga, Tennessee’s fourth largest city, experienced population decline for the first time. Ever since, the population figure had been a sinusoid of increases and decreases typical of the US’s post-industrial cities.
As is the case with many of those cities, local authorities aiming to reignite the economy bet on rebranding Chattanooga the city as a tech hub. Unlike some, Chattanooga was successful in a relatively short time: not just according to local developers, but evident from the $1bn private investors have poured into local startups and accolades from entities such as the Kauffman Foundation, a think thank focusing on social and economic development, which praised the city’s ‘layered entrepreneurial ecosystem’ in a report published in early 2016.
Why did Chattanooga succeed where others failed or, at best, fell short with delivering on big promises? Thanks to infrastructure such as a high-speed fibre-optic internet network, says the Kauffman Foundation report, but also thanks to Andy Berke, city mayor since 2013. “When I became the mayor it was clear that our city had some great assets in the tech world, such as our fibre-optic network, but ecosystem has not quite gelled yet,” says Mr Berke.
Gelling the ecosystem
In order to find that cohesion, the city launched Chattanooga Forward, an initiative aiming at creating six task forces in areas such as tech, but also including arts and housing, with the goal of recommending specific steps to boost the city’s image and economy. The result of the tech task force’s work was a report which recommended introducing several initiatives such as the Innovation District and an entity focusing on expanding the city’s tech business. “Since the launch of the report we have implemented many of the recommendations of the tech task force and my role in it was to make sure that we follow the recommendations and people are accountable not just for talking, but also doing,” says Mr Berke.
But even with this proactive approach and stakeholders united over the same vision, the plan to reinvent the city’s economy and image had to overcome setbacks ranging from discontent among commercial real estate investors over projects in the Innovation District to a terrorist attack stunning the city, shortly after the Innovation District was launched. Speaking to fDi in the wake of yet another setback, a set of wildfires that tore through more than 9,600 acres of land close to Chattanooga, Mr Berke said Chattanooga’s long-term ambition will not change. That ambition is to create a mid-sized tech hub, tailored to Chattanooga’s needs and capabilities.
“We do not want to be like Silicon Valley,” he says. “Being a mid-sized city, we are good for mid-sized projects, and a project that creates 100 to 150 jobs makes a difference in our community. In the long run we want these projects and we want to see more homegrown tech.”