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How Chattanooga is Changing, According to its Mayor

Richard Bradley

Here’s a question: What do you think of when you think of Chattanooga? For many older Americans, the answer might be a maddeningly catchy 1941 song originally recorded by Glenn Miller that became the nation’s first gold record, selling 1.2 million copies in 1942. That sentimental tune belied a grittier reality: From the 1960s through the 1980s, Chattanooga became known as a city devastated by the decline of its primary industry, steel, and the decay of its downtown.

But in recent years, Chattanooga—a small city of about 180,000 people roughly halfway between Atlanta and Nashville, intersected by the Tennessee River—has been crafting a new narrative for itself as a city known for its quality of life, progressive policymaking and economic growth, particularly around technology. Much of that new energy comes from mayor Andy Berke, who’s kickstarted efforts to revitalize downtown, spur economic growth and attract new residents, particularly millennials. Berke grew up in Chattanooga, then returned home after earning degrees from Stanford and the University of Chicago Law School, as well as clerking for a federal judge in Kansas. After serving in the Tennessee state senate since 2007, Berke was elected mayor in 2013 with 72 percent of the vote. He won reelection in 2016 but is term-limited and cannot run again in 2021.

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I spoke with Berke recently at a conference room outside his office in Chattanooga’s city hall. A youthful-looking 51, he comes across as relaxed and thoughtful but intense on matters of policy and principle. Though acutely aware of his status as a Democrat in a city and county—Hamilton County, whose mayor is Republican—where many residents either lean red or are full-throated Trump supporters. Berke doesn’t flinch from describing the inequalities that still divide many of Chattanooga’s citizens, particularly along racial lines, but neither does he go out of his way to attack those with whom he disagrees. “The tone has changed,” Berke says about the discourse of American public life. His response: To focus on building a city where “the most people get paid the most.”

Q: It used to be that the only thing you heard about Chattanooga was that it had a choo-choo. Now there’s a lot of buzz about how the city has revitalized its downtown and improved its quality of life—a few years back, Outside magazine called it the “best town ever”—and it’s done almost all of that in the past quarter century. When did Chattanooga start to change, and how?

A: Two things happened while I was growing up here. Number one, all the steel jobs had picked up and gone to where capital was better deployed. From where we’re sitting [in City Hall], within two miles there were 60 steel mills. Now we have a scrap yard.

And two, we had the environmental impact. In 1969 Walter Cronkite called us the dirtiest city in America. The city that I grew up in was dying.

When did it start to come back to life? 

From the policy side, in the 1970s Congress passed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. That was instrumental in Chattanooga. God gave us the prettiest place on earth, and we know what it’s like to waste it.

In the 1980s, as I was coming of age and ending high school, civic leaders got together and created something called Chattanooga Venture, where they put together a public process to decide how Chattanooga should reinvent itself. And the thing that they decided was that we should reinvent ourselves around our best asset, which was the water.

At that point, in the ’80s, was the “dirtiest city” label still sticking? If you asked people around the country what they knew about Chattanooga, what would they have said?

They probably would have said, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” Number one.

But nobody really even knows what that means, other than a Glenn Miller song, which most people today probably haven’t even heard in its entirety.

They don’t know whether that’s real. When I was in high school and I would travel, people would say, “Is there really a choo-choo?” Whatever.

But at that point, it wasn’t thought of as the dirtiest city in America, it was just thought of as a dying little city. Because I’m a Bruce Springsteen fan, I’ll say it was a Bruce Springsteen song. We were a city in decline.

The Chattanooga riverfront

So what did Chattanooga Venture do to change that? 

They decided first that the Walnut Street Bridge (over the Tennessee River) would become a pedestrian walkway, instead of tearing it down. And they decided that we would build a Riverwalk. This spring, we will complete that 30-year vision of the Riverwalk.

The Riverwalk culminates at the Chattanooga Aquarium, which has become an anchor of downtown. How did that come about? 

Once they started doing the Riverwalk, they thought, what else could we put around it? And decided to put in an aquarium.

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Out of all the attractions that you could have built, why an aquarium? 

To emphasize the river and make sure that people think of us as a river town.

The aquarium has two buildings, one devoted to rivers and jungles and the other focusing on oceans. I preferred the river one—it feels more appropriate here. 

They built the river building first, and that opened in the early ’90s. Essentially they had a big spurt [of visitation], then a little bit of a slowdown. Bob Corker [who retired from the U.S. Senate earlier this year] became mayor in 2001. There had been an idea to do a massive push on the riverfront, and when Mayor Corker got in, he basically grabbed that and said, “I’m going to do that while I’m mayor.” From 2001 to 2004, he spent $120 million on the waterfront, and one of the things he built was the second aquarium building.

That’s lot of money for a city this size. How was it paid for?

Half was from private funding, and half was bonded, secured by a hotel room tax. Every dollar from our hotel tax has to go to the riverfront until it’s paid off. And because of the increase in hospitality revenue, we have more than we need to pay off the annual bond amount. So we use that for other [river-related] projects.

What impact has the aquarium had?

Massive. It changes the way people think about our city. Chattanooga was the only midsize city in America that lost population in the 1980s to gain any population in the 1990s. It was just a smidge. But we did. So I think the best way to think about it is not that it totally turned us around, but it stopped the slide. You started to feel like there was hope, there was activity, there were things happening.

What did city leaders do to ensure that visitors didn’t just come downtown to the aquarium, then turn around and leave?

This is a really critical question that most communities don’t ask—what do you do around the attraction? The most important thing that they did, when they built the aquarium, they really thought a lot about bad stuff not going near it.

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San Antonio's Frost Tower. Photo courtesy of Frost Tower

Bad stuff like….?

A fast food restaurant. And I eat fast food, but—you don’t want that by your marquis attraction. They thought about how to get some local restaurants, about what the urbanist experience was. And it didn’t all happen at once, and they struggled. But most important, they really tried to make sure, no bad stuff.

I have to ask—do you really eat fast food, or were you just being polite?

I do. I eat like a 12-year-old. I like good food also, but my palate doesn’t go very far. So I’m more than happy to eat at McDonald’s.

After the aquarium, Chattanooga also became the first U.S. city to introduce one-gigabit-per-second internet speed, and you started hearing Chattanooga described as Gig City. How did that come about?

We have the most progressive utility in the country, EPB [Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, which is owned by the city]. They were thinking about fiber connectivity when no one else was. So in 2009 they decided to build a smart grid, and that allowed them to take every one of their customers and put in a meter that would be read, not by a human, but by a computer, which would give them constant information about what was happening. We went from getting basically 2 million data hits a year to 16 million a day. And then you can now change when you’re buying energy and how you buy it. And you can also know, when a tree goes down and hits a wire, exactly where electricity goes down.

How did that translate into the super-fast internet speed? 

The big thing was, what else can you use that fiber for? Because it gives you basically infinite capacity. And the answer was, gigabit speed internet. We became the first gigabit speed city, and it’s universal—every single home, every single business has it, because everybody has the utility.

How did that translate into economic growth?

Like any first mover, you don’t know what’s going to happen. But we started the first innovation district in a midsize city. That changed the way we did economic development. At the same time, we decided that one of the things that we needed to do to support entrepreneurship and economic development was change our downtown. When I became mayor, we still didn’t have people living downtown. I started to spend more of my time and energy and political capital on getting apartments and housing and all the other stuff that went around entrepreneurship.

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How many people live downtown now?

In the last few years, we’ve built around 3,000 apartments, and I forget how many thousands of student beds. We spent a lot of time helping UTC [the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga] move from a more commuter-ish campus to more young people living at UTC downtown.

We haven’t spoken yet about Volkswagen, which opened a manufacturing plant in Chattanooga in 2011—the first VW plant in the United States. How do you build around that?

That is a terrific thing for us. It happened while I was in the state legislature and I was happy to be a little part of that, and we are all in for VW. But I didn’t feel like that was a strategy, and part of what I wanted to do was—well, let’s go back to Bruce Springsteen for a minute.

I’m interested to hear the connection this time.

When I grew up here, I thought that Chattanooga and much of the Southeast was in danger of being low skill, low wage, low education jobs. And as I became mayor, one of the things that I wanted to do was change that story. I did not want to repeat the mistakes of the past—remember, we thought that steel was going to last forever. And we know that as much as we want Volkswagen to succeed, we also see that when the car industry changes, it can be very disruptive. You have to diversify. And so, on the economic front, that was really my focus. It was really about changing how we thought of ourselves.

How did you think of yourselves, by that point?

We had a budget identity.

We don’t want to be a city that’s focused on what’s the low cost—we want to be a city that’s focused on what’s the high value.

Which means what? 

The economic development pitch was, come here, where you don’t have to pay people much money. Your business can be successful because you’ll have the labor you need at the lowest possible costs and we’ll have the best possible incentives. And also, we’re a great place to come on a limited budget. Which we still want it to be, but…I believe that our city is strongest when people get paid. And the most people get paid the most. We don’t want to be a city that’s focused on what’s the low cost—we want to be a city that’s focused on what’s the high value.

Can we talk about economic inclusion in Chattanooga? I know it’s a priority of yours in terms of jobs, housing, tech equity and more, but is the Chattanooga story a success for economically disadvantaged African Americans?

It is successful, but not a success. We work really hard to make sure that everybody feels included in the city, and there are a lot of things that go right in terms of that. But we also start from a place of a really tough race divide and economic inequality. We’re in the South. We’re the place of slavery and Jim Crow. There are lots of problems here. That’s the reality we live in. So there are moments where we make progress, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty more to do.

How much does Chattanooga’s racial history shape its present identity?

Those issues affect us every day. They affect land use and where people go to school and economic mobility and everything else. It’s ever-present.

I know you travel to other cities to speak about Chattanooga’s evolution. Are there other cities that you look at for ideas and inspiration?  

The number one place that I seek out advice from is Charleston. They had one of the best mayors in the country for 41 years. [Charleston mayor Joe Riley served from 1975 to 2016.] Like, three times since I’ve been mayor I’ve called Joe Riley because I feel like I’m stuck on something. And he gives me the same advice, and it’s always really, really right-on good advice.

Which is?

His advice always involves engaging the public to come up with a plan to be implemented. Something that you can point to and say, we talked about this. Here’s what we all decided. Now we’re going to go do it.

The biggest issues that face America right now are happening in cities.

Let’s talk a little bit about the national conversation about cities, to the extent that there is one. When you get together with other mayors or policymakers, what’s the discussion about? 

The biggest issues that face America right now are happening in cities. Gun violence, affordability, transportation and transit, education. Health. Economic development. These are playing out across American cities. They are more centralized in the cities.

Has the Trump administration hurt or helped American cities?

That’s a trick question.

It isn’t meant to be.

I’ll reframe it a little bit. Dysfunction at the national level—which goes beyond this president—has been extremely hurtful to American cities. Cities can’t solve the public housing crisis on their own. Cities can’t solve the transit crisis on their own.

You’re a Democrat in a city that could easily elect a Republican. How do you get beyond the partisan divides that you see on the national level to govern? 

It’s really tough. The things that happen at the national level filter down. And it is harder today than it was six years ago [when Berke took office]. Things are more polarized than they were six years ago. More polarized than they were three years ago.

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Do you hear the tone of debate changing?

The tone has changed. People at the local level want to be at the state level, so they act like people at the state level. People at the state level want to be at the federal level, so they act like that. And it all filters down.

How do you cut through that negativity to lead a city forward?

I believe that my job as an executive is to speak to common values and try to tell people what I believe. To do that in a way that is not petty and divisive. And to live the example that I talk about.

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