Evolution of Regional Chattanooga Economy

In 1815 John Ross settled the spot on the river as a river port, and the city’s growth was stimulated by the arrival of the railroads in the 1840s and ’50s. Quickly developing into a railroad hub for the south, rail played a key role in the economic development of Chattanooga, among other similar cities:

“The railroad had its largest impact on the American transportation system during the second half of the 19th century. The standard historical interpretation holds that the railroads were central to the development of a national market in the United States and served as a model of how to organize, finance and manage a large corporation”

Alfred D. Chandler Jr.:The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business(1977) pp 81–121.

Industry flourished in Chattanooga due in large part to rail growth[footnote] as there were 58 industries in the city in 1870, growing to more than 300 industries by 1910 [ ref ]. Post-WWII we see a progressive decline in rail usage as the interstate system plays an increasing role in moving people and goods throughout America. The Interstate Highway System was signed into legislation in the 1956 by Dwight D. Eisenhower.

A key decision that kept Chattanooga relevant as a city was having the interstate run through the city to keep people and goods flowing through the city as rail continued to decline. Originally the interstate system did not run through Chattanooga but Mayor P.R. Olgiati had the foresight to recognize the economic impact to the region and lobbied to change the plans to include Chattanooga[footnote:Olgiati] making Chattanooga the first city in Chattanooga to have a completed interstate, keeping the city as a key connection point to other major cities such as Atlanta, Nashville, and Knoxville.

As a river port, a central rail hub, and then a connector in the interstate highway system, Chattanooga has always had part of its identity tied to being a key conduit in moving goods and people. Having the foresight to innovate and stay relevant in an evolving economy of moving people and goods has proven to be a fruitful strategy for the city for nearly 150 years. Chattanooga has always seen success in the supply-chain economy, and at one time saw success in the manufacturing economy as well. However, as many Rust-Belt cities found, the combination of global outsourcing and software integration into the manufacturing fields has seen Chattanooga's employment in manufactoring drop from 34% in 1940 down to 16% in 2000.

“Like many cities, Chattanooga was hit hard by deindustrialization. After reaching its peak in 1979, the country’s manufacturing employment declined by more than 7 percent during the decade (see Figure 3). The loss of manufacturing had an even greater effect on Chattanooga. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of Chattanoogans employed in manufacturing declined 28 percent, to 12,231, or about one in five workers. Fifty years earlier, more than one in three Chattanoogans worked in manufacturing. ”

A Restoring Prosperity Case Study: Chattanooga, Tennessee (September 2008) www.brookings.edu

While the success in the supply-chain economy could be considered a stabilizing factor in the region economically, it wasn't enough to completely mitigate the effects of 50-years of consistent manufacturing decline; Manufacturing decline sent the city into a tailspin, with the Brookings article going on to state:

“As the number of manufacturing jobs declined, so did the number of city residents. After losing almost 10 percent of its population in the 1960s, Chattanooga lost another 10 percent during the 1980s, and for the first time in a century, Hamilton County’s population declined as well. Downtown had—like many other U.S. downtowns—became a ghost town. Few families believed their college-bound children would ever return—there were no jobs and there seemed to be little future. At the beginning of the 1990s, Chattanooga was a hard-hit Rust Belt city. ”

A Restoring Prosperity Case Study: Chattanooga, Tennessee (September 2008) www.brookings.edu

It's difficult to read the stark contrast between the previous section's call for keeping our best and brightest at home for long term success, and how over the past 50 years through manufacturing attrition Chattanooga had gotten to the point where it was a city where families did not expect their children to return.

Urban Rebirth, Public + Private Partnerships, and The Tennessee Aquarium

In the 1990's Chattanooga was experiencing a decades long decline as the world around it changed. Only though making strategic investments through public + private partnerships was Chattanooga able to stabalize the decline and return to economic growth, making the downtown area (once a ghost town), a desirable place to live again.

Public + private partnerships were able to drive change in Chattanooga's narrative by introducing a plan to reinvent the city, making it a national attraction. Most people credit the story of the Tennessee Aquarium of the city's reinvention (and to a degree, it is emblematic), but ultimately it was the combination of multiple forces as described in the quote below:

"The task force, working with an outside consultant, recommended the creation of the Tennessee River Park along a 22-mile stretch of the Tennessee River. The goal was to create a world class corridor of linear parks—both as a means of providing amenities to local residents and to begin the process of making Chattanooga a regional attraction. The plan for the Riverpark, completed in March 1985, concluded that “[I]f properly done, reconnecting the city with its river, not only physically but by active use, will strengthen community pride. Tourists will be attracted and the word will spread, an essential step in focusing business and investment interest on Chattanooga.”

A Restoring Prosperity Case Study: Chattanooga, Tennessee (September 2008) www.brookings.edu

Soon after we see Chattanooga make news with EPB's introduction of gigabit internet across the region, changing perception of the city across the country. Chattanooga again made a public + private capital investment and changed its own narrative further, again using the same recipe.

Turning around the downtown area was a building block for mitigating the population loss and it required planning, coordination, and invested capital between many groups such as the Chattanooga Venture, the RiverCity Company, the Lyndhurst Foundation, individual donors (e.g., Jack Lupton, others). Today we see further waves of this planning with the Riverpark connecting all the way to St. Elmo and Lookout Mountain, along with plans for a redeveloped south side. EPB's success with the fiber investment can also be considered another regional building block that gave Chattanooga a more modern narrative on the national scene.

Obviously we'd be remiss if we did not note the technical successes of Chattanooga such as the acquisition of Access America Transport by Coyote Logistics, which created further regional investment through the Lamp Post Group. We've also seen the rise of incubators such as the CO.LAB and competitions like GigTank increase in Chattanooga due to the confluence of investment.

Next: Summary and Getting Comfortable with "We Don't Know"