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State of the City - 2019

To Chairman Oglesby and Members of our City Council, to our city’s first responders, to the men and women who teach our children, clean our streets, cut the grass at our ballfields, and plan our city’s future, to our clergy of all faiths, and to you, the residents of our great city of Creators...

Thank you.

Thank you for the work you do, the cares you shoulder, the dreams you dream, and the heartaches you comfort. Thank you for creating a city they used to call the dirtiest in our country, and now wins awards and graces magazine covers.

And if I may, I have one other thank you.

Thank you for showing up.

That’s no small thing. You know what they are writing about our society. That we are more obsessed with our phones than our families, more interested in weekend brunch than Sabbath worship, and more likely to bowl alone than to form a league.

With so much division and dissension, sometimes it feels like no one is willing to stand up for the values of an inclusive community.

Except, not in this town.

There are plenty of cities in America where the Mayor makes a speech...and the crowd makes for the door. Where civic engagement is what you expect to read about in the society pages.

In Chattanooga, however, it’s different. Our city has a way of coming together.

We’ve come together to mourn the fallen five...and to lift up the survivors of that awful day in 2015.

We’ve come together to clean our environment and grow our economy at a speed that many never thought possible.

We’ve come together to build the state’s best downtown, while lowering rates of gun violence in every neighborhood.

And we’ve come together to support new moms, and to find housing for every homeless veteran on our streets.

This is the state of the city address, so let me assure you: The state of our city has never been greater, and the greatness of our city has never been more evident than when we are together.

So, let us take a few moments tonight to talk, together, about how we did this, and how, together, we can do more in the days and months to come.

Fifty years ago, in 1969, Chattanooga was given a nickname that any city would dread. The most trusted man in our country, a CBS news anchor, sent out the word to his 29 million nightly viewers: Chattanooga is the dirtiest city in America.

This moment is iconic in our history, so much so that we even made fun of it in last year’s State of the City video. But it is a useful point of departure for the 50 year journey of our city.

To begin the long road of repairing our community, we worked together with state and federal policymakers. Law students at Vanderbilt University wrote the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act in 1965, declaring that the waters of our state belong to everyone. In 1970, our Senator, Howard Baker, wrote the Clean Air Act, and he passed it through the United States Senate unanimously.

It turns out working together is not just good for the fish and the birds, and pretty soon Chattanoogans were returning to the river that used to be filled with our sewage and sludge.

Now, on a beautiful day, we can stand anywhere along the Riverwalk, and marvel at G-d’s mighty handiwork, cleaner and clearer than ever before in our lifetimes.

So tonight, I want to talk about the last fifty years -- with a special emphasis on the last 6 -- and celebrate our progress. I also, though, think we need to be honest about the challenges we still face. Only then can we do what a city of creators does: Walk out of this room, together, with a plan and a commitment to action to make life better for us all.

Let’s start with the subject of that fateful news story -- the environment.

Our geography is one of Chattanooga’s biggest advantages. Mountains encircle our city. You can drive 5 minutes north from where we are right now, and hike to the top of Stringer’s Ridge. You can hit a softball from here to the river that winds through our heart, allowing boaters and fishermen to enjoy their sports minutes from a vibrant city. These are huge attractions for both residents and visitors.

But that doesn’t mean all is well. Our climate isn’t what it was in 1969. If you remember the summer fires of 2017, you know what happens when the air gets trapped in between these beautiful mountains. Not surprisingly, one study reports Chattanooga has the 6th-fastest rising temperature in the country.

A city that has cleaned up its act is facing up to a new call. Five years ago, city government set a goal to reduce our carbon footprint through a Better Buildings Challenge and went to work. Often it’s the simple things -- like putting in controls so our lights automatically turn off at 6 pm. Other times, it’s intensive capital investment, like renovating the Chattanooga Public Library, reducing the number of light fixtures while still making the space brighter.

The Chattanooga Airport has become the first net-zero airport in the country, thanks to its solar array. This fall, we will begin work on a new solar installation at the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant to generate 3 megawatts of solar power, reducing our carbon footprint even more. Our goal has been to lower city government’s energy consumption by 20 percent in 10 years. Well, when Chattanooga sets its mind to something, we make progress. This week, the US Department of Energy certified a 30 percent decline in just 4.

It’s been a great deal for taxpayers, too, saving more than a million dollars a year in utility costs.

Yet extreme weather isn’t going away. Last year was the wettest on record, with over 67 inches of rain in the Tennessee Valley. In February we had substantial damage relating to flooding. And just since I’ve been Mayor, we’ve seen more tornadoes and forest fires.

We need to be more resilient as a society. And let me tell you what that looks like.

At 6:51 pm a few years ago, while most of us were eating dinner with family or watching tv, a storm raged through East Brainerd, knocking down a power pole, leaving 11,258 homes and businesses in darkness. 28 seconds later, the Smart Grid, which sensed the problem immediately, rerouted power from other powerlines, and 10 thousand customers got their power back.

In 28 seconds.

After another 15 seconds, 800 more customers were back, and just before 6:58 pm -- in less than 7 minutes, everyone in our city was going about their lives as if nothing had happened.

Resiliency looks like EPB,

Now it is time to build on the lessons of our world-class utility.

Climate change and extreme weather affects us all. A fire that starts on Signal Mountain can spread to Marion County or Chattanooga. If the Olgiati Bridge is closed, that affects Dade County residents who drive in to our downtown for work. Weather recognizes no city, county, or state lines.

After all, while we may have a river, we aren’t on an island.

That’s why I am pleased to join 18 other Mayors from our area in announcing the start of a new regional resiliency plan. The plan will tackle many of the issues we face regularly, such as enhancing our emergency planning and reducing our energy consumption. But it will also serve as a platform for us to work together on the more far-reaching effects of climate change, like the loss of cultural resources when an area is devastated; support for businesses seeking to become more resilient; and being smarter about the impact development may have on our climate preparedness.

I am thankful so many thoughtful leaders from around our area understand the importance of this work, and some of them are here tonight. They are bipartisan, from cities and counties, and work in both Tennessee and Georgia. I would ask these Mayors to stand so we can thank them for their incredible work.

There are many important regional issues for us to work on together. Certainly, Chattanooga’s workforce draws from our entire area, and it is one reason why education is so important.

Investing in children is essential to a city of creators. Over the last several years, we have made substantial improvements through our Department of Youth and Family Development to nurture the power of young people.

That has come in many forms: a literacy initiative in every corner of our city; free summer camp for any Chattanooga kid; a library card distributed to every Hamilton County student; just last year, state-of-the-art technology upgrades to every single one of our YFD Centers; and, of course, our ongoing attempts to build an Early Learning System.

This work is personally rewarding, and I feel the urgency of its pull. When I walked into Champion Christian Learning Academy and picked up three year old Amyrah, she stared at me, seemingly wondering who the funny-looking tall guy was. But when I looked back, I truly felt like I was witnessing the awe of the almighty’s creation and the future of our city.

But early learning is more than feel good. Over and over again, studies have shown every dollar invested yields a significant payback. And we have tremendous providers like Chambliss Center for Children, Siskin Children’s Institute, and Signal Centers that do the hard work every day.

Last year, I vowed that we would create at least 1000 new high quality early learning seats in Chattanooga by 2021. At a seats for success event 2 weeks ago, we reported we had already created 365 slots in less than a year, and our providers signed pledges for another 600 new seats, an awesome achievement.

The Office of Early Learning, which I announced at State of the City in 2016, is also working hard to increase quality. A great educational experience requires a top-notch curriculum so our kids, no matter where they live or how much money their parents make, are prepared to learn on their first day of kindergarten. So I am pleased to announce tonight that City government will make sure that all of our providers use the same high quality curriculum and are trained to use it.

Today, Chattanooga is leading the way on building out support for young families and their children, and I am convinced that 50 years from now it will be among the things we are most proud of.

In 2019, though, our schools face different challenges than they did 50 years ago. If someone had said school safety in 1969, you probably would have thought of crossing guards. It’s not that way anymore.

I will never forget the first time a young person talked to me about this, not long after the Parkland tragedy. We were hosting middle schoolers from the Belvoir Christian Academy. One of the 8th graders said he would be attending high school soon and his question was simple: “Do I need to worry about getting shot next year?”


There can be only one answer to that question, but my reaction then--and I’m guessing your reaction tonight--tells us we need to be more confident when we give it.

Our police officers are ready to do more to make our students safer, and Chief Roddy has working with Hamilton County’s excellent superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson on a plan. Starting now, the Chattanooga Police Department will ensure that every school in our city without an SRO -- and each early learning center -- has a specific police liaison with direct ownership for that school’s safety and security.

This is what we do; this is how Chattanooga works together. When it comes to the safety of our children, it is not enough to say, well, that’s someone else’s job. Parents don’t give up their responsibility when their kids walk out the door of their home, and this City isn’t going to pass off our obligation to our children simply because they are walking in the door of a Hamilton County school.

So, we will do more.

We know that a child packs not just a bookbag to school, but also their problems from home. That’s one reason a teacher’s job is so difficult. But what if our teachers knew more about what that child is bringing to school? Could they do more?

I think so, and that’s why I’m excited to announce tonight a new partnership called Handle With Care. When our police are called to a child's house, we will let administrators at the school know, reporting specialized information so that teachers and administrators can understand--and help.

If our kids--and our teachers--are going to fulfill their potential as creators, sometimes we must handle them both with extra care.

This partnership illustrates the different approach we’ve taken to public safety over the last few years. We’ve emphasized building community and helping victims.

It’s the right way. It’s the safe way.
Look at the results. Gun violence is coming down.

Homicides are down 32 percent.
Non-fatal shootings are down 21 percent.
Four years ago, I told you we would focus on gang shootings, and we have.
In 2015, Chattanooga had 72 gang incidents. Last year, we had 27.

And we will continue to invest in initiatives that keep us safer:

● Technology like the Real Time Intelligence Center, which I announced at the 2016 State of the City;
● Partnerships with community organizations through the Citizen Safety Coalition;
● Focusing on helping victims, with City social workers to tending to families to break the cycle of violence;
● And in community policing, getting officers out of their patrol cars and speaking with the people they serve.

These approaches have made our neighborhoods stronger.

But a safe neighborhood is not just about policing. It’s about building places where people have pride, where Chattanoogans come out from behind their locked doors and engage with their neighbors.

Because here’s a secret about a safe neighborhood. The best neighborhood, the safest neighborhood, is the one with the best relationships.

Let me tell you what I mean. A few years ago, after numerous complaints, we condemned several buildings at Dodds and Chamberlain in East Chattanooga. Two leaders in that area -- Etta Kanipes and Verlene Middlebrooks -- understood that, while closing the buildings was right for the moment, it wasn’t a solution. So they convinced the owner of the former Sunny Town grocery to sell, and then worked with city government to install new sidewalks to make it safer and more walkable.

And before the end of this year, our creators Etta and Verlene will see their efforts come to fruition with the opening of a new Sav-A-Lot grocery store.

That’s why we build relationships. That’s why we invest in neighborhoods.

Working with city council, we have set aside funding during each of the next several years for the small changes that make a big difference:

● A new playground at Tacoa Park in Brainerd;
● Streetlights in Hixson;
● Sidewalks in Washington Hills;
● Greenways in Alton Park, and much, much more.

And, after many years of neglecting our infrastructure, we have more than tripled the amount used for paving our roads.

And, of course, there is downtown.

When I was a student here, my parents never let me come downtown. Fifty years ago, when the banks closed at 5, so did the center of our city.

Well, not any more. Downtown Chattanooga comes alive at night. A lit marquee at the Tivoli. New and reimagined hotels. Festivals with attendees walking our streets.

But more than a venue for our visitors or a nightspot to catch a show or grab a great meal, downtown is a neighborhood.

At the center of it all is Miller Park. Partnering with River City, last September we opened a beautiful new public space in our city center, with more than half of the funding coming from the private sector. On a beautiful day, you will see some residents sitting and chatting at the tables; local food trucks selling barbecue and fried macaroni and cheese; and a couple of people in shorts throwing a frisbee while a family sits on a blanket. It has been a tremendous success.

So let’s take the next step, together and finally solve an issue that affects downtown and all of our neighborhoods: homelessness.

Last year more than 2000 adults and 600 kids experienced homelessness. I hear about the issue more and more from business executives who are worried about our city core; from neighborhood leaders calling to report tents in the woods near their homes; from well-meaning people who are concerned for the devastation that homelessness inflicts on fellow Chattanoogans.

In 2014, at State of the City, I declared we would end homelessness among veterans. And we did.

Since then we have helped more than 350 veterans find a place to live. I learned a lot about what it takes to end homelessness. Now we have taken those lessons and formed the Chattanooga Interagency Council on Homelessness, led by Betsy McCright and Donna Maddox, and it includes not just our non-profit providers but hospitals, landlords, caregivers and public safety officials. They recently released a 5 year strategy to end homelessness in our community.

Underlying this goal is one essential truth: The only thing that really ends homelessness is helping a person in need get to a home. Through our work with veterans we learned if we do that and provide services once they get there, they have about a 9 in 10 chance of remaining housed.

So tonight, I am pleased to announce that city government will take on the first pieces of the Interagency Council’s plan. In our upcoming budget, we will hire navigators and case managers to help those struggling most in our community get to a home and to support them through the transition.

There are many other components of the plan, and if we work together, we are going to end homelessness in our city once and for all.

Creators need economic security, of course, and that means more than simply shelter. Many Chattanoogans work extremely hard, but they’re barely keeping their head above water. One unforeseen setback -- like a big medical bill or a major car repair -- can cause them to sink.

I know we talk a lot about jobs, and I’m proud Chattanooga has created them at a faster rate than much of the rest of the country. We just partnered with Mayor Coppinger and the county, as well as the State, on a second deal to expand the Volkswagen at Enterprise South, with a minimum of 55 hundred direct employees at VW by the time the new electric suv is rolling off the line.

But if you say “more jobs” to a lot of people in our community, it means something different.

That’s because many Chattanoogans feel like they have too many jobs. Often there’s a main place they work, a second part-time gig, plus they are trying to get their own business off the ground.

Take Doug. Doug has a full-time day job, but he also works as the night manager at one of our local hotels. Since his wife is taking time off to care for their newborn, Doug has started picking up her restaurant shifts as well.

That’s 3 jobs and a newborn. Doug doesn’t complain. It’s what he has to do to pay the bills.

The only way to change Doug’s circumstance is to improve his wages. That’s been central to our economic development strategy since I became mayor. When I announced the Innovation District at State of the City in 2014, the goal was to bring higher paying jobs to our community. At the same time, we’ve found new ways to support locally-owned small businesses who might not qualify for big government incentives--but are hiring and raising their hourly pay.

And, it’s worked. Chattanooga had the 6th highest wage growth in the country in 2017.

But some long-term trends are working against us. If you were 30 years old in 1969, you had a 90 percent chance of making more than your parents at the same age. Today, that number is below 50 percent, making millenials the first generation in America to be worse off than their parents. If we think about our economy as a ladder, with each passing decade, it feels like the rungs are getting farther out of our reach and harder for us to hold onto.

Well it isn’t going to be that way in Chattanooga.

Tonight, I’m proposing a coalition for a new Chattanooga Dream. With input from our community, we will build a concrete plan for improving economic mobility in our city. We will discuss how we can increase wages at the bottom, yes, but also how to make sure there are more chances for Chattanoogans to improve their lives all along the ladder.

I trust the people around our city to put together viable steps for us to improve economic mobility. But let me give you a couple of places I believe we should start so we can turn the Chattanooga Dream into reality.

Tennessee is one of 5 states without a minimum wage. That’s wrong. No wonder people in our city have to work so many jobs to make ends meet. Our coalition should advocate for better policies so Chattanoogans can earn more.

Second, I believe we should focus our efforts on supporting the industries that provide more paths to the middle class. One example is health care.

Take JoAnne, an incredible creator. JoAnne graduated from Howard High School, got married early, and had 4 kids in 5 years. When she got divorced, she started LPN school at 22 and soon was delivering direct care at Erlanger. She continued her education, getting an associates degree and then a bachelor’s at age 35. All the while she went back and forth between the health clinics, Erlanger, and even a stint at the city, eventually getting a Master’s Degree. She finished her health care career by running the health clinics and teaching over 1000 students to be nurses at Chattanooga State.

She did all this as a black woman, taking on segregation and sexism along the way, succeeding despite the barriers our society placed in front of her.

Now the end of her story is better than most. JoAnne Favors became a Hamilton County Commissioner and a State Representative, and led the fight to make our entire community safer and healthier. While JoAnne Favors gained a career, and her family moved up the rungs of the economic ladder, we’re all better off today for her success. Please welcome--and thank Representative JoAnne Favors.

So whether it is Health and Wellness or skilled trades or innovation, our coalition should plan for expansion in industries that allow for more economic mobility.

A third, I believe, is finding new solutions for important but low-paying professions so Chattanoogans can stay in a field they love while making their way to the middle class. Take early learning. Because it has traditionally been a low paid profession, many talented people will leave in search of a higher income.

A city of creators finds solutions. Last year we partnered with Signal Centers on an initiative called WAGES. It provides a supplement to teachers who want to get additional qualifications and then will stay in the field, enhancing both the quality of our classrooms and the financial stability of our hard-working teachers.

This coalition will put forward its own ideas, and I know our community is engaged on this issue. The Chamber of Commerce, for example, recently released Velocity 2040, which prioritized the economic success of every Chattanoogan.

After all, economic mobility is essential to our success as a city of creators. Of being in control of our own lives. Of not just surviving but thriving. Of being able to enjoy the incredible improvements we have made, together, since 1969.

Tonight, as we talk about our dreams, I think about my own family history.

My maternal grandfather left when my mom and uncle were young, leaving my grandmother as a single mom in a time when it was a little more unusual than it is today. She was able to get her two kids to college on the salary of a retail clerk.

That story isn’t possible today. No American can afford to raise a family as a single parent while working only one retail sales job.

On my father’s side, my grandparents were both immigrants. They certainly encountered hardship and discrimination; but city schools taught my grandfather English and how to read and write, and, in the days when you didn’t have to complete law school to be a lawyer, he worked as an apprentice to get on the job training, pulling himself up the economic ladder.

My family has lived and realized the American Dream. On the backs of their hard work and with the good luck of being born to my parents, I stand before you tonight. I am so fortunate to be their son and grandson.

But they -- and I -- are also the beneficiaries of a city and country that made our dreams possible.

All of us should be proud of the work our city has done over the last 50 years and concerned about the forces that threaten to set us back.

But we must not grow cynical. It is tempting to look at the dysfunction we see at the national level and think there’s nothing to be gained for our efforts. To believe that hatred and division make big steps impossible, and 2019’s problems will still be with us fifty years from now.

Well, I do not accept that. And I don’t think you should either. If we want our city to improve, we can change our policies and behavior to make it so -- no matter how large the challenge.

After all, if our city’s arc has taught us anything, it is that we are not powerless. Working together, we have accomplished so much since 1969, and we won’t stop now. I have seen that spirit every day since I have been your Mayor, and it’s one reason why newspapers and magazines love to repeat our story.

These issues I have talked about today -- resilience, education, safety, homelessness, and economic mobility -- are among the biggest issues we face in our country. It is time to summon the restless pride that defines us as Chattanoogans -- just as we did 50 years ago -- so that we may square our reality with our aspirations and ensure that all of us, in every corner of our city, are able to achieve our dreams.

The cities that will own the future are the ones that invent it. That’s what our city of creators does. And it is what we will do, as we always have, together.

Thank you.


City of Chattanooga
Mayor's Office
101 E. 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37402
Phone: (423) 643-7800

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