This story was originally published in the June/July 2015 issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
When one reads the 25-page report by the Brookings Institute or catches several of the video clips from various cities that promote innovation retooling, one might walk away with the idea that Chattanooga is at the epicenter of forward thinking.
And maybe it is. Recently restructured, The Enterprise Center is focused on creating a dense innovation economy. President and CEO, Ken Hays tells the story.
In 2010 EPB chairman Harold DePriest and his cohorts introduced Smart Grid technology to the Tennessee Valley. The system could communicate digitally and make power supply repairs, automatically, throughout the Tennessee Valley. “DePriest was its champion,” says Hays. “Even though the community little understood what it was or how it would affect them.” Once supplied by EPB’s gig, this large reserve of power and connectivity would change the game for economic development, so progressive thinkers began to look for ways to use it.
“In doing this, we created yet another dimension in which Chattanooga has been an early mover,” says Hays. By merging older civic leadership with a young tech-savvy generation through initiatives like GIGTANK, a multifaceted strategy has gradually emerged.
The success of GIGTANK from the start helped the city gain national attention in 2011. “We were bringing wickedly smart kids to town,” says Hays. “And, they were staying.”
After Mayor Andy Berke was elected, he created multiple Chattanooga Forward task forces that collaborated to develop core strategies. The redirection of The Enterprise Center was an important component and it will serve as an anchor for the new district.
“Today’s entrepreneurs want and need a densely populated, highly caffeinated city, with collision points everywhere providing regular feedback for those trying to invent new products. Our innovation district is central to that strategy,” says Mayor Berke. Chattanooga is the first mid-sized American city to establish an Innovation District and city leaders initially gave the possibility their full attention.
“For many months the Center has been reaching out to thought leaders around the country,” adds Hays. Heavy reading like Bruce Katz’ book, “The Metro Revolution” made the rounds among locals and was perceived to be a good predictor of trends. He believes there is value in creating a place to grow innovation and also warns that if cities don’t focus on an innovation economy, they will be left behind.
The results of much of the research and strategic planning are just now beginning to surface and become applicable. An important component is “digital inclusion” or making sure a broad demographic of the population is able to take advantage of Chattanooga’s technology edge.
“People need low-cost Internet access, they need training and equipment,” says Hays. The Enterprise Center just completed a pilot called Tech Goes Home Chattanooga at six neighborhood locations around the community. This program helps people gain knowledge quickly about using computers and the Internet for daily needs like on-line banking, communicating with their children’s teachers, or filling out online job applications. And at the end they go home with a new computer and low-cost Internet access. Thanks to the pilot’s success, Hays is raising funds to serve at least 2,000 people in the program in the next two years.
Chattanooga’s Public Education Foundation (PEF) is expected to feel a strong impact from the Innovation District, according to Keri Randolph, PEF vice president and learning director for the STEM Innovation Hub.
“In cities across the country, innovation districts focus on business incubators and entrepreneurial clusters. Chattanooga has the opportunity to take the lead on demonstrating how public schools can be an integral partner with entrepreneurs in the district,” says Randolph. “As part of an innovation district, teachers, administrators, and students can collaborate with business and community members to apply big, bold ideas to education.” The PEF STEM Innovation Hub has received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation that connects STEM School Chattanooga students with the University of Southern California through Chattanooga’s gigabit network. The project takes advantage of 4K streaming microbiology labs to inspire and enhance interest in understanding microscopic biology. Middle and high school students watch procedures on large screens performed and explained by university professors and graduate students, hundreds of miles away.
PEF is near the heart of the Innovation District, both physically and philosophically. Its location on 10th Street is already the site of learning and collaboration for teachers throughout the county. By locating the Enterprise Center and CO.LAB in the Edney Building along with other tech-related initiatives, the Chattanooga Innovation District will become even more collaborative. The Lamp Post group may use some of the space for their growing portfolio of companies, as well.
“For us at Lamp Post Group, the Innovation District is an exciting development that demonstrates that our local government is committed and invested in building the first tech hub in the South right here in our city,” says Lamp Post’s Joda Thongnopnua. “We are thrilled to have been a part of City Center ever since we first opened our doors and we are looking forward to watching it grow as it becomes part of the new Innovation District.”
The Edney Building [ℹ️ City Guide] is on the southern perimeter of the innovation hub. To the east the James R. Mapp Building near UTC will be another location for collaboration. Fidelity Trust owner, Matt McGauley’s, cluster of office buildings forms the northern border of the District near the Hamilton County Courthouse. Their recent purchase of the site of downtown’s first Krystal Restaurant and later the first Krystal Company headquarters offers even more opportunity to enhance the city center for tech companies looking to launch. With its 20,000 square feet of space, the Art Deco building offers a pleasing and accessible collaborative situation for the right companies.
McGauley’s corner building at 7th and Market now houses H&D Corporation, a German-based IT provider. They also plan to build out the second floor of the McConnell Building for commercial lease. In fact, they have seven buildings in the district for a total of 90,000 square feet.
As a workforce is readied for innovation, the city’s center is readied for denser habitation. The goals of the Enterprise Center align with the work of River City Company whose president and Enterprise Center board member, Kim White, has been working to promote the development of at least 22 underused buildings in the district. “While the city and other partners have been working on the tech piece—we’ve been working on livability—bike lanes and housing units,” says White. Several developers are involved.
Recently, the building on Patten Parkway that was known as Yesterday’s, has been rebranded as the Tomorrow Building with 43 dorm-style housing units for rent. The interior demolition began in May. And also within the district, the Chattanooga Bank Building at 8th and Market Streets will soon be redeveloped as an ALoft hotel. The building is owned by AMCA.
By the end of 2015, private developer and Hixson native Vic Desai is expected to have rental apartments at The Clemons ready for lease. The building at the corner of 8th and Chestnut Streets will offer one, two and three bedroom apartments beginning with 580-square-foot, one-bedroom units for $900 per month. Parking will be available at Citi Park garage, and with a membership residents may park across the street at the Mountain City Club. The Clemons will offer basement storage, a fitness facility, media room and a rooftop deck with a dog walk.
“We looked at this building some time ago. The owner was Henry Luken, but the numbers didn’t work out at first. Later we came back and caught him on a good day,” says Desai. “We’re definitely excited about this project.” Desai’s company, Vianova will also develop the two top floors over the Southern Community Bank at 817 Broad Street as luxury condominiums.
Giving the city center a new name to reflect it’s methodical redirection may seem unnecessary to some, but like McGauley most understand, and as he says, “Just having the name helps establish a brand.”
Learn more at theenterprisectr.org.
Photography courtesy of The Enterprise Center and PEF.