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Sunday, August 16 2009

When visiting Chattanooga in May, a group from Evansville heard a tale of how cooperation led to great improvements for the Tennessee city's downtown.

Travelers on the trip, organized by the Chamber of Commerce of Southwest Indiana, were duly impressed. But they would be naive to think the progress came without some bumps.

As could be expected in any place which had undertaken a large number of public projects over the course of 20 years, Chattanooga leaders didn't accomplish what they did without contending with critics. Several years before the city opened its famous Tennessee Aquarium along its riverfront, a supporter of the project complained of public resistance.

A chief gripe concerned the city's decision to display nothing but freshwater fish in the tanks. Few tourists, critics said, would pay to see species found in the Tennessee River. But Jack Lupton, who made his fortune by bottling Coca-Cola, believed in the project enough to put at least $10 million from his family's Lyndhurst Foundation toward it.

"Everybody's saying, 'Who the hell wants to go down there and look at the bream and catfish,' " Lupton told a newspaper about six years before the aquarium opened. "Well, if that's where they're coming from, they are going to be truly shocked."

His prediction proved true. Looking back, many Chattanooga leaders consider the aquarium the first step the city took toward reviving its downtown.

Since then, the total for-private money invested in the area near the city's riverfront has approached $2 billion. Other attractions include a baseball stadium, a foot bridge, free concerts, a children's museum, an IMAX theater and about 30 restaurants. The amenities have helped Chattanooga draw big businesses like Blue Cross Blue Shield and Volkswagen, which is building a plant just outside the city.

Seeing the results, even those usually skeptical of government have had little but praise. Christian Lanier, a Chattanooga attorney who once had led a local citizens taxpayers association, said most of the criticism dissipated once the improvements began to appear.

Of course, to truly appreciate the changes, a visitor has to know what Chattanooga's riverfront was once like. When Lanier moved there in 1977, a large part of the central business district was filled with empty buildings. Not many years before, Walter Cronkite had said the city had the worst air of any in the United States.

Residents were afraid to go downtown because of crime. Who, given those situations, would resist changes for the better?

"There are a lot of public-private partnerships down here, and you can argue against those on a theoretical basis," Lanier said. "But that is the way it is done here, and it works."

Here is what some of the Evansville travelers had to say about the cooperation they heard about in Chattanooga.

n Christine Keck, the director of strategy and systems development for renewable energy for Energy Systems Group: "I was really inspired by what the area, between the city and county, has done. The fact is that the city and county are very similar in size to Vanderburgh County. It was encouraging and gave me hope for how we can further the success of our community. I do recognize that their area has some advantages. They have major north-south and east-west interstates, both of which carry a tremendous amount of vehicle traffic. With Interstate 69, we will certainly get closer to that."

n Mike Schopmeyer, a lawyer with Kahn Dees Donovan & Kahn: "If you look out 20 years from now and assume we are a community that has an interstate running north and south, it's going to carry a lot more cars than we have ever seen, once it connects to Memphis. And if you look at all the advances we have made, we can duplicate some of the improvements that they have. The biggest take away was: There has to be a shared vision, whatever it is for. If it's 20 or 12 or six things, these are things that will make a better community in which to grow up, work, retire and attract folks that have a better income.

n Lloyd Winnecke, Vanderburgh County Commissioner: "I didn't see anything on the trip that we couldn't aspire to. The beauty of trips like this is we can pick up the strategies they have used to succeed and apply them in our community. An aquarium might be a great attraction. I don't know if that's what we need. That's not to say we can't take the energy they had on that project and apply it to a project on the drawing board here. Specifically, I'm thinking of the proposed baseball and softball complexes that have been discussed for two or three years."

n Steve Melcher, Vanderburgh County Commissioner: "I really liked the riverfront and their trailway system. And I have asked for some information of what it has cost them (for) a mile of trail, to see if it's the same for our greenway. They have 22 miles, and they have done that in 10 years or so. And we have been at it for more than 10 years, and we don't have 22 miles. But I liked the way they had the downtown spread out. It didn't seem like you were walking a far distance."

n Evan Beck, president of Woodward Commercial Realty: "I think that Chattanooga, as compared to other places we have visited, offers so many similarities to our communities here. Regionalism has been a strong component of each of these trips. And that's something we have improved on. I think what I saw that we could implement was the overall willingness of various organizations to work together for a common goal. I think our communities have come a long way in the past five years. But from what I saw in Chattanooga, we can still improve in that area."


EBJ STAFF WRITER / (812) 464-7519 Downtown improvements


Posted by: Rolando Trentini AT 10:00 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

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