State of the City 2010

Every year – every New Year – arrives with a sense of anticipation and optimism……a burst of positive energy and enthusiasm. 

The old year has been packed away with the holiday ornaments and we gather our thoughts, our hopes and our dreams to consider the possibilities.

Some of us make resolutions, some of us set goals and some just hope for the best.

Then, there are those special years – the ones that usher in a new decade – those special years that end with a "0".  These are census years and the comprehensive counts that take place at that time establish a baseline on which we build our future. 

A census is underway right now and the result will affect life for just about everyone as the decade unfolds.  It is important that we get it right.

Decades are particularly meaningful measures of time.

Decades - We give them names: "The Roaring Twenties", "The Fabulous Fifties".  The unique qualities and personalities of decades are woven into the colorful fabric of our history.

The first two decades of the last century were a golden age for Chattanooga.  Much of the infrastructure and many of our great buildings of Chattanooga are products of that age.

From 1900 to 1910 the population of the city and adjoining suburbs doubled from approximately 50,000 to over 100,000.

The City was laced with 79 miles of street railway, electric lights throughout the city and suburbs, a modern gas system and a very efficient telephone system.

Further, the city had 29 miles of paved streets and 47 miles of sewers.  Scratch down through the layers and I'm sure that we are still using those miles of basic infrastructure.  Some might argue (hopefully in jest) that we haven't done much maintenance on them since that time.

Interestingly, in researching history for this occasion, it was learned from old news reports that on Sunday, December 10, 1911, the Incline Railway went out of service for several hours while it was converted from steam to electric power.  We need to prepare to celebrate that centennial anniversary next year.

And so, looking back at the history that first established Chattanooga as a significant city, let us look forward to the decade ahead and the issues and actions that will determine what sort of city we shall become.

The decade ahead. Now and the near future.

There are two current concerns that have long term implications.  Loosely they might be gathered under two titles:

Our built environment – particularly Housing – having to do with our quality of life and neighborhoods, and

Our natural environment – particularly Water – having to do with the quality and sustainability of this place that God has given us.

We proudly tell the world that Chattanooga is the most transformed city in America.  How many times we have related the true tale of that dark day in 1969 when Walter Cronkite announced on his top ranked national news program that the most polluted city in the United States was, in fact, Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Our climb back from that low point is something that has put us on the short list of progressive communities.  Now, hardly a week goes by without Chattanooga at least being mentioned and often featured in some mainstream publication – often one of the lifestyle journals – most recently BusinessWeek and Fast Company magazines.  We are surely a city on the rise.

In terms of housing, we have become known as a city of walkable, livable neighborhoods.  Our greenways and trails, our parks and our commitment to extending our network of sidewalks are paying a healthy return.  We are seen as one of those rare communities where people choose to live here because the living is good here – not just because they work here.  It is a quality that pays dividends in retaining our citizens, giving them reasons to "age in place" as the new term puts it – and even to attract retirees from nearby cities like Atlanta and even distant places like Michigan and Florida.  I find that more and more at national gatherings the attractiveness of having a climate that is essentially free of the fierce cold of the north and the fierce storms of the coastal south is seen as something of great advantage.  When I tell mayors from other places that Chattanooga is very attractive to "half backs" – and then explain that I'm speaking of those individuals and families that move from north to south and then half way back – the others simply smile and shake heads knowingly or shrug as if to say "What can we do to compete with that?"  In the decade ahead, we must do more to take advantage of this natural but fragile quality.

We have been invited by Henry Cisneros, former Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and former Mayor of San Antonio, Texas, to contribute a chapter to a book that he is producing on city livability. Cisneros has been to Chattanooga a few times over the years and he has witnessed our great transformation first hand.  Since leaving government, he has become a keen observer and advisor regarding proper directions in housing of our growing and changing populations.  He now is Executive Chairman of City View companies dedicated to producing workforce homes in America's cities. He has produced two books on the subject of measures to improve housing and neighborhoods.

The first, Casa Y Comunidad on the special needs of Latino families was published in 2006 by the National Association of Homebuilders.  Two years later with the aid of the Brookings Institution, he produced a second book, From Despair to Hope describing a new way of thinking on the subject of low income housing.  It was a new concept based on personal inspiration from James Rouse – the same individual whose inspiration led to Chattanooga Neighborhoods Enterprise.

During his watch as HUD Secretary, Cisneros fostered the shift away from the old, traditional concept of simply warehousing the poor in bland, depressing multistory high density housing projects to a more hopeful and enlightened approach of developing housing that is integrated with its community and neighborhood.  In short, public housing that does not look or feel like public housing. 

In this context, I have to say that it is difficult to understand why our own housing authority would wish to take a step backward and build, once again, a public housing development that concentrates and isolates the poor in a location that lacks the needed elements such as access to public transportation and other qualities that give the residents options and add to hope and optimism.  Whatever else can be said about the proposed high density housing development at the steep and narrow end of Fairmont Avenue, it unquestionably will look and feel like public housing.  No one takes issue with the need for public housing in general or the utility of the Fairmont site in addressing the community's overall goal of inclusion with safe and livable housing for everyone, but the development as proposed ignores the lessons learned over the decades since World War II and offers a 50 year retreat in thinking.  It must not be built as currently planned and designed.

The coming decade will demand that we retain a high standard of livability and that means housing that is inclusive – where people of mixed incomes, colors and cultures can live in harmony and in proximity to one another.  Where the aging and infirm can feel that they remain a vital part of their neighborhood.  Henry Cisneros' plan for replacing despair with hope is the correct approach.

In recent years, the Chattanooga Housing Authority has stumbled and staggered from one developmental and financial disaster to another.  They do not need to repeat the sad experience, yet they seem determined.  In their diminished economic condition, they do not need to be wasting resources hiring lawyers to fight the very city that they were created to serve. Most importantly, as we move into the decade ahead and as we as a community continue to strive to set a national example of quality of life, strong neighborhoods with safe and livable housing for everyone, Chattanooga needs a partner not a problem child.  Accordingly, I stand ready to offer the Housing Authority more appropriate and affordable office space in closer proximity to City Hall, additional development sites and other assistance to seek our mutual goals.  However, if the Chattanooga Housing Authority is to survive in the decade ahead and serve out its greater purpose, it will require a new attitude and new leadership.  We need a partner, not a problem child.

Finally, regarding a special issue related to housing let me say just a word about those with no home at all.  I do not often agree with Harry Austin, one of the editors of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.  And those who read him on a regular basis will know that he does not often agree with me.  In fact, he often takes me to task about one thing or another.  But he wrote something just the other day that I absolutely agree with.  He noted that the recent days of bitter cold and challenging weather condition underscore the need for an emergency shelter to house our homeless during such occasions and for those other emergencies such as storms which force us to press recreation centers and other facilities not designed for the purpose into temporary service.  We've made great strides with the Community Kitchen, the Interfaith Homeless Network and other facilities.  But it's time for a well designed and specialized emergency shelter.  It's time.

Now, let's talk about water – clean water and not-so-clean water.

The electrical outage that resulted in the overflow of untreated sewage into the Tennessee River last week helped in a very harsh way to underscore a reality: We are not just a city – not just a loose confederation of different political jurisdictions; we are a region joined together by one all-encompassing environment.  We share a watershed.  If during the recent sewer overflow crisis you had poured dye down a drain in East Ridge or Red Bank or any of the outlying areas with sewers, you could have seen that dye reappear at the overflow points and at the outfall for the City of Chattanooga.

All of the issues that we are presently discussing and debating relative to water: water quality fees, sewers, leaking service lines and, yes, even annexation are related to how we provide and manage the water that we as a community claim as a resource.

As for the shock and shouting over the recent rise in water quality fees, I certainly understand.  I pay them too and I sense the pain of businesses and particularly that of nonprofits and churches.  I will not try and downplay the financial impact of that necessary action.  It is regrettable but necessary.

There is a simple solution to it all.  If every property owner will just take responsibility for the precipitation that falls on his or her own piece of real estate, the problem can be solved.  If every residence, business, church and industry could just capture and hold a one inch rain and allow it to soak into the ground – never leaving the site in question– the issue would be largely handled without further governmental action or expense.

Of course, that's not how we've been building and developing our cities.  Instead, we have followed a development pattern that assumes that we can catch, channel and convey our natural precipitation and dump it on our downstream neighbor.  Somewhere, it is assumed that any pollutants in the water will be filtered out.

Every acre of impervious surface, such as asphalt, concrete and rooftop creates over a million gallons of stormwater runoff per year.  An acre is about the size of a football field minus the end zones.  As you drive around our city visualize football fields as you look at the pavement and try to imagine the amount of water...hundreds of million gallons...even billions of runoff that are created by that.  Our approach in the past has been to try to put more and more pavement on top of the ground and more pipes and bigger holding areas under the ground.  That approach is not financially sustainable for us or any other city.  More importantly, it is not cleaning the water from all the oil and other pollutants that are carried from the parking lots and other hard surfaces.


I know that I might be getting a little technical and detailed, but please bear with me.  How we handle this issue will have a very significant effect on how we progress in the decade ahead.


For cities with combined sewers, the problem is even worse.  We have heard horror story after horror story from leaders in our peer communities.  A few weeks ago, I sat in Washington with the Mayors of Akron and Lima, Ohio – listening to them outline the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to address federal clean water guidelines.  Just last week, l was back in Washington with others from Kansas City – said to be saddled with a $2.6 billion program – and the Mayor of Des Moines – a city that will only need $250 to 500 million.


Philadelphia estimated that it would take $16 billion of pipes and holding areas over the next fifteen years just to meet their requirements and those of EPA and the state of Pennsylvania. 


Unfortunately, for all of that expenditure they would get no visible benefit.  (Kind of like the plumbing in your home, it's necessary, but not the focal point of the home.) 


They have found that by putting green infrastructure on the surface (holding areas, landscaping, trees) that they can meet their requirements for 10% of that cost (or $1.6 billion instead of $16 billion).  In the process they accomplish multiple objectives:  Communities and Business Districts are revitalized.  Recreation areas are created. The city is more attractive and healthier. And, thousands of jobs will be created in process.  None of that happens by just expanding the city's plumbing by adding more pipes and pits underground.


Again, I don't want to lose you, but this issue is critical in how our community will move forward in the decade ahead.


Philadelphia wants every stream fishable, swimmable and accessible in twenty years...we have had similar goals...this will facilitate us reaching those goals – and it is both environmentally and economically sustainable.


To do this we will have to change the way we design and build our city.  Many of our codes and ordinances are out of date and don't allow the very things that we need to do in order to create green infrastructure.  We must update and integrate those codes to create a new way of designing and building our man-made environment.  And, we will follow our own rules. If an ordinance or code is too much trouble for us it is too much trouble for everybody else and needs to be changed. We will lead by example. 


Last year the City Climate Action Task Force (my Green Committee) asked that we establish an office to pursue implementation of our very thorough and award winning plan. I have taken that action by appointing former councilman David Crockett to position of Director of the Office of Sustainability.  Dave has a love for the job at hand; he has something of a worldwide reputation and following.  Everywhere I go, someone asks "How's Dave Crockett?" or "What's Dave Crockett up to these days?"  It happened again just last Friday in Washington.  He's a whirlwind of energy and we've told him to charge ahead.


So, how will things be immediately different?


Beginning now any building done by the city of Chattanooga will be L.E.E.D. certified.   L.E.E.D stands for "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design".  The local nonprofit agency "Greenspaces" has been our partner in implementing this concept with recent city buildings and promoting the concept for others in private enterprise.


Buildings built to this standard save energy, materials, water and money.  Some cities like New York now require that every new building meet that standard.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers builds every building for the Army to that standard.  The two large construction projects done recently, the Blue Cross Blue Shield office complex and the Volkswagen automotive plant, are both L.E.E.D. certified projects.  These two large projects along with many other significant L.E.E.D. projects, including city of Chattanooga projects, have already set that high standard and we will maintain it. 


Chattanooga will pursue a course of creating "green infrastructure" as an alternative to our past practices of grey infrastructure below ground and impervious surfaces above ground.   Green infrastructure is just that.  It is a new way of collecting stormwater above ground with natural vegetation and systems that are attractive, less expensive and accomplish multiple objectives.  They not only deal with stormwater but become the central theme for neighborhood and commercial revitalization, creating additional recreational areas and becoming a significant job generator for our city and region.


We will adopt the philosophy and practice of Thomas Jefferson: retain and conserve the water - recharge rather than discharge.  Somehow we got on the wrong track - conveyance and opposed to retain and recharge….


This is a new path.  We will learn together.  We will partner with business and communities to develop new approaches.  We will partner with leading cities around the country to transfer their experiences and knowledge.  We will profit from this by developing new skills, new business opportunities and hopefully new technologies that can be used here and in other cities across the country.  We will develop new codes and ordinances for landscaping, urban forestry, stormwater, street design, etc. that are integrated and promote functional and attractive green infrastructure.


I will task our City Departments and the Office of Sustainability to provide the resources and support for us to begin that learning experience.


The decade ahead: The challenge and opportunity of joint utilities


As a community, we have experienced and demonstrated the value of unity through our recent economic development successes.  Just a few weeks ago, a gathering of Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia elected officials discussed ways to improve planning and development across our 13 county region.


One of the more prominent factors under review was the need for coordinated water and sewer resources.  The group discussed the sensitive but necessary process of breaking down emotional resistance and other barriers in order to merge small utility districts into a more workable and larger entity. It was acknowledged that the greatest resistance often relates to individuals and their egos and the personal identification with membership on boards for small jurisdictions. 


In the Chattanooga / Hamilton County urban area, the real challenge is to put our egos aside, check our jurisdictional prejudices at the door and get on with the serious business of building a better community for our children and grandchildren.


If we are to achieve all that we might hope for during the decade ahead, Chattanooga – and I mean by that the Chattanooga Area – will need an industrial grade water and sewer utility – much like the Electric Power Board, but focused on providing the best possible water and sewer services and even being responsible for storm water.  It is all about water quality.  This is an environmental issue that is not going away but is instead likely to grow in importance in the decade ahead.  As I said in the beginning, this issue arguably also affects annexation since numerous failing septic systems were observed in surrounding subdivisions during the recent actions to annex within the city's growth boundary.  (And all of that septic overflow collecting in ditches outside the city flows downstream into Chattanooga.)


The city is in possession of the key piece of the puzzle: The Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant and the central interceptor sewer system.  This state-of-the art facility consists of the main plant rated at 140 million gallons per day, several large pump stations and 1255 miles of sewers.  If built today, just the main parts would probably cost more than $2 billion.


I am proposing that we offer this as the central asset of a larger and much more comprehensive system to serve the growth needs of the entire area.


Some might argue that bigger is not always better and sometimes that is quite correct.  But in the case of water and sewer services, larger operations are necessary to properly staff and manage and properly address environmental issues and regulations.  As we have learned and as has been recently demonstrated, the provision of modern water and sewer service is a very technical and complex process.


Chattanooga's success in the decade ahead will depend to a very large degree on how we deal with this issue.  It is critical.  Accordingly, I have asked Councilman Peter Murphy to represent our interests by serving on a commission of local leaders to move this idea toward reality.


The decade ahead: The challenge and opportunity of tax equity


The old sales tax sharing agreement – negotiated in the 1960's when Ralph Kelley was Mayor of the City and Chester Frost was Hamilton County Judge is due to expire May 23, 2011.

Over the years, this agreement has been debated, discussed, detracted, dissected and (often) detested.  The original purpose might have been a good idea with all the right intentions, but its effect on the city and county and the joint services that it was designed to finance has never been comfortably resolved.  Over the years, both principal parties to the agreement – the City of Chattanooga and Hamilton County have expressed feelings of dissatisfaction and a sense that one side or the other was getting more or less than bargained for.  In short, the equity of the arrangement has never been settled. 

This is a complex matter but central in setting joint goals and establishing working relationships going forward.  Last year, I had an intern research the issue and he produced hundreds of pages of documents including the original agreement plus numerous amendments and newspaper articles on the issue.  It is a Gordian Knot of complications and entanglements, but it must be dealt with.  It will take persistence and a special gift for handling details.  Toward that end, I have asked Councilwoman Deborah Scott to represent the city's interests in a multi-governmental committee to untangle and define the details of the existing agreement and to determine how we might fashion a new arrangement that is fair and equitable for all citizens.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that the best "bad example" of city and county cooperation and joint funding – under the old sales tax agreement – is, in fact, the Chattanooga Hamilton County Bicentennial Library.  As we wrestle with other elements of tax equity, we will not wait to move forward with implementing the plan that we developed a few months ago.  Accordingly, we have engaged Partners for Livable Communities – a Washington DC based group that worked with us during the Chattanooga Venture years – to help us make this institution a fully updated and world class example of what we can accomplish together.  One of the elements of our plan will be the development of a "model branch" library – probably in Brainerd – taking advantage of the unique relationship with the Brainerd Mission and its significant place in the Chattanooga community and the history of the Cherokee nation. 

The decade ahead: Other opportunities for consolidating services

For some time now, we have talked of CONSOLIDATING SERVICES.  It has been agreed that we can begin with the City Treasurer's Office and the office of the Hamilton County Trustee. To that we have added the City and County Court Clerks, but these are baby steps – necessary steps, but a decidedly small step toward our goal.

Next, we need to move toward a complete consolidation of city and county Parks and Recreation functions.  We have already demonstrated that we can work together successfully on specific properties such as the riverwalk.  The new athletic facilities developed by the city such as the Summit of Softball will serve the entire region and, at least to some extent, the greater Chattanooga and Hamilton County area should join in support.  There are successful models presently operating in the State of Tennessee.  In Blount County a Parks Commission serves both the county and principal cities with recreational properties and services.  Locally, it should go beyond athletic facilities.  A Parks Commission for Chattanooga and Hamilton County should be responsible for a full range of recreational activities – including ornamental and passive parks and recreation centers.

In similar manner, the Chattanooga Department of Education, Arts and Culture manages and maintains the Tivoli Theater and the Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Auditorium and provides inspiration and animation for civic centers in Hixson and East Brainerd.  These are community assets that need to be supported by the combined interests of all local jurisdictions.

Let's not place boundaries on Public Safety – if we are to enjoy the greatest benefits of the decade ahead, we must have unified, skilled and equipped departments providing a modern urban level of services without regard to borders or jurisdictional limitations.

As for fire protection, we have the best trained, best equipped and most qualified fire service in the area – not a brag, just a fact.  In response to the recent and continuing tragedy in Haiti, we signaled authorities that we were prepared to send a ten person team of our firefighters – specially trained in urban search and rescue skills.  The group was kept on alert and ready to go until orders came from those managing the crisis that our group could stand down.  Other current factors include a new Enterprise South Fire Station scheduled to open in August of this year.  Several new pieces of equipment are on order.  A class of 30 firefighter recruits is presently in training and planning is advancing for a second fire station in Lookout Valley.  

Regarding police, it should be noted that our department has retained accreditation and continues to set the standard for law enforcement in the Chattanooga area.  In terms of size, it has remained stable at about 450 commissioned officers, but intends to grow to a force of 500 as soon as economic conditions permit.  In spite of financial limitations and the pressures of a growing community with new and constantly changing challenges of a major urban area (such as the relentless evolution of gangs and drugs) the Chattanooga Police Department has succeeded in reducing crime totals in both violent and non-violent categories.  As we studied annexation, we learned that almost 60 percent of our officers are driving their patrol cars to their homes in the county.  Since it is acknowledged that they are always on duty protecting our community, we need to institutionalize this situation. We need a consolidated countywide police force.

Public Works – This department has lived a dual existence for the last year and a half.  On the one hand, many of those in the department have had full-time jobs working on the Volkswagen site and a second full-time job handling the regular responsibilities of a public works department serving a major city.  We learned the value of unity when both the city and county crews were jointly assigned to site preparation for the VW initiative.  If we are to enjoy the full fruits of success in the coming decade, we need a unified department serving the entire community.

For the decade ahead, consolidation for the sake of efficiency, economy and unity is the key.

As we emerge from "The Great Recession" we find ourselves on the threshold of a new age of promise and progress.  We have survived the most significant economic contraction since the 1930's.  There are new rules, a new model of sustainability and environmental responsibility, but it's a new game in which Chattanooga is uniquely qualified to play. Accordingly, what we must be about at this time is building a foundation for the next decade.

Ladies and gentlemen, the State of the City is good, but the decade ahead can be much better.

As we enter the "20 Teens", we should claim the coming decade - the years to come as our special time "The Chattanooga Decade". 

One hundred years ago, we were described by our Chamber of Commerce as "The City that pays dividends".  In more recent times, we have been described as a community rich in history, bright with promise – a city with more untapped potential than any other. 

Now, with unity of purpose we can turn this proud moment into a truly catalytic time when we once again "turned talk into action" and established Chattanooga as more than that community with a musical name. We can legitimately lay claim to the title of "best midsize city in America"

As we emerge from the Great Recession and wait for strength to return to our financial institutions in advance of a new wave of development, there is nothing more important, nothing more transformational that we can be about than the process of consolidating our services and unifying our governments.

This administration has 3 years and 2 months to accomplish its purpose, to put the structure in place for Chattanooga to achieve its destiny. That is time enough, but not too much time.  To borrow the words of Robert Frost, we have "promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep…."

Here is our chance, it is our time. 

It is "The Chattanooga Decade"…..  Let's go to work.