August 18, 2013

Officials: Area can ‘thrive’ together

Charles Oliver

— Five years ago, Volkswagen announced it would build a new assembly plant in Chattanooga. Chattanooga officials celebrated the news, then realized that along with all the new jobs and economic opportunities the plant would bring it would also create many challenges for local transportation, utilities and education.

“We were like the dog who’d chased the car for so long and finally caught it. We weren’t quite sure what to do now,” said Ron Harr, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

Harr, who spoke last week at the Rotary Club of Dalton, said officials there decided they needed to plan not just for the impact of the Volkswagen plant but for all of the other changes that could affect Chattanooga during the next four decades, and they needed to include neighboring communities in their efforts.

“All over the country, local governments are waking up to the idea that it’s not just a city. It’s not just a county. It’s a region,” Harr said. “We all depend on each other in every way. But, most importantly, in an economic sense, we are all in this together. This is an opportunity for us all to work together to look at our combined future and work together on things that can help us all grow better.”

The result is Thrive 2055, an effort to better plan and coordinate development in an area covering 16 counties and 79 towns and cities in three states: Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.

While the Chattanooga chamber got the effort going, Harr said others in the region are playing a vital role. In fact, the chairman of the group’s coordinating committee is Brian Anderson, president of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce.

“I don’t know where this is going to go. I went in with no preconceived notions. I just thought we needed to be part of the conversation,” Anderson said. “Atlanta is the political center of our state. But for us, Chattanooga is much more important economically. We share workers. We share water. We share transportation. We need to be involved in this.”

The effort has a $3 million budget, and about $2.5 million of that has already been raised from local governments (none from Whitfield or Murray counties), private business and foundations. Harr said it will take three years to complete, with the first year, which is coming to a close, focused on gathering information on topics such as transportation, water and sewer, health and health care, economic competitiveness and education.

“The next phase is to decide what areas we think we can have the greatest impact on in the shortest amount of time. In the third year, we are going to devise some plans to work together as a region to address some of those issues,” Harr said. “We are not trying to take over local control. We are trying to coordinate local control and make sure that everyone knows what everyone else is doing. When we have finished, we are going to take what we have found to local leaders and say ‘This is what we have found. This is what we think would help. We’d like to work with you on these issues.’”

Harr said the information the group has gathered already indicates the scope of the challenges it will face.

“The population of this entire region, 16 counties, was just over 1 million people. It is projected by the Census Bureau and others that by 2055 that population will be 1.4 million. Most of that growth is going to occur outside Hamilton County (Chattanooga),” he said.

At the same time, the population is going to grow older, with the share of people over 65 growing to 25 percent in 2055 from 13 percent in 2010. And it will grow more diverse, with the minority share of the population growing to 25 percent in 2055 from 14 percent in 2010.

Education is a major issue for economic development, Harr said.

“If site selectors come, they don’t just ask about land and highways and railroad. In fact, the first thing they ask about is the workforce. They ask about the availability and the education and skills,” he said.

This region stacks up poorly compared to some other parts of the country. Just 18 percent of adults in the 16 counties have completed at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 28 percent nationally. Meanwhile, Harr said, 22 percent of jobs now require at least a bachelor’s degree.

Some 22 percent of the area’s adults lack even a high school diploma, compared to just 14 percent of adults nationally, while just 12 percent of jobs can be filled with someone without a college degree.

“We’ve got a real challenge here,” Harr said.

Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb said local leaders realize the need to cooperate more often on many projects.

“Whitfield County is already part of the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission, so we are already working with other counties in this area,” he said. “Where I see it as an advantage is if you have something that is truly of regional importance. A new airport in this area could have a major impact. Getting the locks fixed on the Tennessee River. Doing something about the I-75/I-24 split to reduce accidents and congestion. Everybody in this area would like to see that fiasco fixed,” Babb said.

But Babb said he doesn’t see local governments giving up control over local issues.

“We will remain in charge of our own county land use planning and our zoning,” he said.