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Inaugural Remarks

The first day of a new administration offers a time to reflect on where we’ve been as a community, where we are today and what the next chapters of the Chattanooga story should be.

We all know the narrative of our past. Our arc from the dirtiest city in America to the home of Volkswagen, the gig and a vibrant downtown is a study in the power of community transformation. It is important to retell that history as we approach and consider our next steps.

But today, I also think about the other Chattanooga stories that I have heard over the last year.

I think about Vickie’s story. Vickie works as an administrative assistant, leaving for work when it’s dark in the morning and coming home when it’s pitch-black at night. For her, crime isn’t a statistic in a newspaper. She worries about the house on her block where a young man living with his grandmother deals drugs, tearing down the quality of life in her neighborhood.

Vickie’s story is a Chattanooga story.

I think about Donna’s story. Donna tracked me down as I was walking along Main Street. Her son, Michael, spends too much time with friends who are leading him down the wrong track. In a time when a higher education degree is more important than ever, Donna worries that Michael won’t graduate from high school and will end up on the streets instead.

Donna’s story is a Chattanooga story.

But I also think about Tony’s story. At a reception last week, Tony told me about the opportunity he sees in our city as a young tech entrepreneur. He moved back here from Florida because there’s something special about our community, a place he can grow and succeed with the right help and support.

Tony’s story is a Chattanooga story, too.

These three stories illustrate the challenges we face as we prepare to write the next chapter of our story as a city. They reflect the hard truths and problems that come without easy answers, but they also shine a light on a smoother path toward our common future.

There are too many of us who, like Vickie, worry about personal safety every day. Our streets are too dangerous—Chattanooga’s violent and property crime rates are higher than other Southern cities. Two years ago, Chattanooga officers responded to 1,525 domestic violence offenses and more than 22,000 drug-related offenses. It’s no wonder that Vickie worries about her safety.

Too many of the 35,000 children who live in our city face the same challenges as Michael. Four out of every 10 Chattanooga children entering kindergarten live in poverty. And at a time when two- and four-year degrees serve as the passport to the middle class, too few of our youth make it through high school and finish college. It’s no wonder Donna is concerned about her son.

And while we should celebrate our success in bringing new companies to our community, we can do more to create new businesses and support entrepreneurs like Tony. Over the last decade, we have lagged behind the rest of the state in starting new businesses. We need more people like Tony to grow jobs here.

Each of us has our own narrative. Together, they make up the real story of our community.

But—as someone once said—the thing about stories is that where they end just depends on where you stop the telling. I know this from personal experience.

I was born and grew up here. When I graduated from high school in the mid-1980s, I left for college, not knowing if I would ever return. My story could have been about another young person growing up here, moving away and deciding to work and raise a family elsewhere.

But that wasn’t where my story stopped. A few years later, when making the decision about where to start my career, it seemed obvious. Although I wasn’t sure what Chattanooga’s future held, I felt too disconnected from my neighbors in the big cities. Those places certainly have their advantages, but Chattanooga fit who I was. I wanted to live in a place where I could make a difference, where my job was meaningful and where I could get involved in the community.

It was one of the best decisions of my life.

I returned to find a town in motion, bustling with energy and enthusiasm. I connected with groups and people who were pushing education forward, working toward an inclusive city and writing and rewriting Chattanooga’s story every day.

My story is a Chattanooga story.

The passion and determination that I found when I returned made me proud of my hometown. I have seen that same spirit and sense of purpose over this last year. During the transition period, I held two forums where people across the community could share thoughts, identify areas of common concern, and harness our best thinking and hard work. Over 500 people showed up each night; the online recordings have been watched more than 1,000 times. As I walked among the tables where the discussions were being held, I heard people talking about their lives and ideas. While those words inspired me, the part that bowled me over was watching the other members of the group listen. In every part of the gigantic gymnasiums, the participants were interested in each other’s story.

That’s when it occurred to me. We each have the power to write our own story. The story of our city is important. But we will be at our best when we have the tools, the chance, the opportunity to craft our own narratives and endings.

Vickie’s story does not have to end in fear. It could end when law enforcement and the community come together to stop the drug dealing on her street.

Donna’s story does not have to end in sorrow. It could end when Michael develops the skills he needs to finish high school and graduate from college.

And Tony’s story does not have to end in disappointment. It could end when his growing business creates jobs for people like Michael.

While city government cannot solve every problem, it can and will help. After all, it is difficult to get an excellent education if your street is too dangerous to walk to school. If you have no transportation from the west side of town to the east side, your job possibilities are limited by your location. And it is hard to imagine a future as a child unless you have the education, skills and character to thrive in the 21st-century workplace.

Our priorities are, therefore, clear. The city must focus on public safety, economic and community development, and youth development.

A new phase of the Chattanooga story will be our progress on safety. It is past time for the needless shootings and killings to end. It is time to take action.

I will be putting forth a comprehensive public safety strategy to address the all-too-pervasive violence in our city. It means putting more cops on the street, but that is just the beginning. Tactics like the High Point Initiative bring all of us together—across law enforcement, government and the community—to reduce crime. We must be ready to prosecute and punish anyone who commits violence in our city, putting gangs on notice that their destructive behavior will not be tolerated.

That also means curbing our plague of domestic violence. Last year, the number of women murdered in our city doubled. That’s unacceptable. We will move to using a lethality screen, asking the critical questions designed to identify the most dangerous offenders before the conflict escalates. The High Point Initiative and the Maryland domestic violence policies are clear examples of what works. Let’s use them.

Our focus will not be solely on police, prosecution and punishment. We must add a fourth P: prevention. After all, our best deterrent to crime—as well as tool for long-term economic development—is raising youth with the aspirations, skills and character to lead a productive life.

Youth development is a central part of this strategy. For too long in our community, we have pointed fingers rather than raising hands when asked who is responsible for educating our children. Today, I raise my hand as mayor and say the city is ready to do its part.

While the county operates the school system, we will be a partner. More of our children should be ready for school by age 5. Those early years are important to put kids in the best position to achieve once they reach elementary school.

We also know that children spend more time outside of the classroom than inside. Whether before school, after school or during the summer, we will partner with the county to open doors of opportunity for our youth. We will focus on enhancing our kids’ strengths rather than harping on their weaknesses. And we will search far and wide for innovative solutions that provide tangible results.

We will help our children write their own stories.

Those doors of opportunity must also open for the adults across Chattanooga. The city will be a major player in the recruitment of new jobs. While we have great partners already working on this important need, the city will expand our recruitment, retention and expansion strategy. As these decisions are made, we will link economic development with community development. Whether it is a new tech company in St. Elmo, a new grocery store in East Chattanooga or a new retailer in East Brainerd, our growing prosperity should impact all in the community.

As part of that, we will build on our history as a place of entrepreneurship. Through the gig initiatives and the hard work of many, I can feel the return of our entrepreneurial spirit. The city will promote and expand these opportunities, ensuring that Chattanooga is known as a place where the best ideas can make it from the page to the market.

Entrepreneurship, after all, is about individuals having the opportunity to delve into their passions, to follow their dreams and to live the life of their choosing, to write their own Chattanooga story.

If we are going to make gains on these three priorities—public safety, youth development, and economic and community development—then we need a city government that delivers these services in the most effective and efficient way possible.

That means basing our budgeting decisions on our priorities and effectiveness, not on tradition. As we move to budgeting for outcomes, we will improve our data collection so we know if our efforts are bearing fruit. We will then decide whether to continue, improve or discard existing initiatives.

A central part in our success will be the efforts of our city employees. Today, in the audience, we have many of them among us. I want to thank you for your loyal service to our city and the hard work you put in for our citizens.

I want to unleash your power to get things done. You are city government. I look forward to leading the team and using your experience and expertise to accomplish more for Chattanooga than ever before.

Part of the renewal process is understanding that government cannot and should not go it alone. All of us share responsibility for building community and creating opportunity. I have seen our local nonprofits, churches, schools, private industry and foundations contribute so much to this area. It is time once again to pool our efforts in the new Chattanooga story.

I want to lead a new city: one in which each of us has a role in our government; one in which we strive for unity of purpose rather than divisiveness and pettiness; one in which all of us share responsibility for making our streets safer, mentoring our youth and building community.

That is what I am asking of you today. Whether you are an employee of city government or not, serve your city. Too many Chattanoogans today see their window of opportunity closed and feel no control over where their life is headed. Everything in the past year—the energy in the community, the tremendous participation at the forums, the eagerness of citizens to answer the critical question, “What am I willing to do to help?”—tells me we are engaged and ready to focus not only on ourselves but on empowering each other.

I love this city. My wife and I work hard to make sure that our two daughters will have the opportunity to write their own stories, to define their own version of success and then achieve or fail on their own merits. I look forward to working with all of you to make the dream I have for Hannah and Orly a reality for every Chattanoogan.

Join me in writing the new Chattanooga story—one in which all of us have a unique part. We live in the greatest city in the world, but our best days are ahead of us.

Thank you.

Photo by Phillip Stevens and Matt Lea