How Chattanooga Changed Its Fate

By building what its citizens wanted, the southeastern city got what it needed: an outdoor engine of economic growth.

By Allison Woods November 30, 2015

Chattanooga is a midsize city (174,000) in the southeast corner of Tennessee. It enjoyed early success as a booming railroad town at the intersection of the cotton-growing states of the South and the mountain villages of Appalachia. As industry grew in the mid-20th century, pollution became a big problem for Chattanooga, which sits at the bottom of Tennessee Valley. When the economy declined in the 1980s, 10 percent of the city’s of population moved away. In the 1990s, Chattanooga took control of its own destiny, ambitiously embarking (through public/private investment partnerships) on a $120-million redevelopment plan to restore its riverfront, anchored by the Tennessee Aquarium. By 2005 the city had completed the 13-mile, amenity-rich Riverwalk, now home to dozens of live performances and festivals.

What they wanted: Once the Riverwalk was complete and the Tennessee River’s banks restored, Chattanooga had big dreams to create more opportunities for outdoor recreation. “What has been key to our success is that we built the community for ourselves,” says Bob Doak, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Visitors see all the great things happening throughout the city and want to come and be a part of it, as evidenced by their $1 billion-a-year economic impact in Hamilton County.”

How they got it: Enter Outdoor Chattanooga, the brainchild of then-mayor (now-U.S.-Senator) Bob Corker. The city-owned agency, located in a LEED Gold-certified building on the Riverwalk, promotes Chattanooga’s myriad human-powered recreational activities: climbing/caving, road and mountain biking and especially paddling. The city hosts Head of the Hooch, one of the world’s largest rowing regattas with more than 2,000 boats racing for two days in November. They’ve hosted four Ironman triathlons, with the 2017 World Championship on the horizon.

In addition to Outdoor Chattanooga, the city made a major infrastructure improvement: super high-speed Internet (up to 10 gigabit-per-second) that runs on an all-fiber network as a public utility. This is a huge draw for younger workers and tech companies put off by the high costs of bigger cities. Outside magazine calls Chattanooga “like the love child of Nashville and Silicon Valley, but with more singletrack.”

Why It Worked: A motivated citizenry, a central location near much bigger cities (Atlanta and Nashville are both within two hours) and a major tech infrastructure upgrade made Chattanooga’s meteoric rise feel like it was meant to be. Public/private partnerships provided the capital investment.