Chattanooga’s Boldness Sets an Example
Chattanooga’s recently completed, $120 million waterfront transformation stands as a testament to what a similarly sized Tennessee city can achieve with bold vision and dynamic political and civic leadership.
One can only marvel at everything that was accomplished within the three-year span from the multi-faceted project’s inception to completion earlier this year. Consider:
• A $30 million saltwater addition to the Tennessee Aquarium that complements the adjacent freshwater aquarium that has been Chattanooga’s signature visitor attraction since it opened in 1992.
• A $20 million addition to the Hunter Museum of American Art that commands a bluff previously inaccessible from the waterfront. A sloping pedestrian bridge now connects the two and makes an easy walk out of what used to be a circuitous drive.
• A $3 million renovation of the Creative Discovery Museum that was built near the aquarium in 1995 at an original cost of $15 million.
• Conversion of what had been a five-lane expressway separating the downtown area from the waterfront into a two-lane parkway with wide sidewalks and lots of crosswalks.
• Along the waterfront itself, an imposing pier with ornamental lighting, a marina and lots of reclaimed greenspace that will serve as a venue for many new events in addition to the long-standing Riverbend Festival.
The list of features also includes a more passive park across the Tennessee River on a former industrial site and lots of public art. Ceramic works by Cherokee Indians commemorate the city’s heritage, harking back to the time when it was founded as Ross’ Landing by a Cherokee chief, John Ross.
What’s more remarkable than the upwards of $60 million in public funding that went into the project is the $51 million in philanthropic contributions that covered the cost of the aquarium and Hunter Museum additions as well as the Creative Discovery Museum facelift. All of that private money was raised in just 90 days in the fall of 2002 in a campaign spearheaded by Chattanooga’s then-Mayor Bob Corker. During that flurry, Corker presided over a series of 80 face-to-face meetings with the heads of the city’s vaunted family foundations as well as corporate and individual donors.
“If you throw deep, if you create a bold idea, more energy and resources will come to it than you ever imagined…. The spirit of the thing was just tremendous,” says the dynamic Corker, who is now running for the U.S. Senate.
Is there a message and perhaps a model in all of this for Knoxville’s Mayor Bill Haslam? Both by word and deed Haslam subscribes to the view that there are times and places for mayors to take the lead in private fund-raising campaigns—and coming from a family whose name is synonymous with philanthropy in Knoxville, he’s well credentialed for that role. Right now, he’s close to completing a personally led effort to raise $2 million to save the Bijou Theatre. And he’s also committed to selling $3 million of what amount to “angel” bonds, unbacked by the city, as one component of the financing of a new downtown movie theater.
“In cases where, as mayor, you take the lead, you do so because you see it as integral to bigger purposes that you’re trying to accomplish,” Haslam says. “The Bijou is a case in point, because for it to go dark would be a setback for everything else we’re doing downtown.”
Looking ahead, he muses, “Could there be something that’s part of one of these efforts that’s bigger, on which I would take the lead? If there was something on the South Knoxville waterfront that makes sense…. The waterfront is obviously going to take an investment of city dollars, but we’re not far enough along with the planning process to begin to know what that dollar amount is.”
But Haslam is cautionary about approaching Chattanooga’s scale of boldness on several counts. For one, “We’re still living in a situation where we’re financially strapped because of the Convention Center…. And the other thing that makes their situation easier is that they were building around some anchors, especially the aquarium, and because of that, they can leverage philanthropic dollars in the overall deal.”
Chattanooga financed all of the public sector elements of its waterfront project with the proceeds of a recently instituted city hotel/motel tax. But the Knoxville hotel/motel tax that former Mayor Victor Ashe instituted is committed to covering convention center debt, and even then only a small portion of it.
After years of aquarium envy, Knoxville tried in the late ’90’s to come up with a destination attraction of its own. But a huge convention center, built in isolation, certainly didn’t get it, and ill-fated ventures such as Universe Knoxville have generally soured the community on the notion that there’s a “silver bullet” in our future.
For my own part, what Knoxville most needs that it doesn’t have, at least in prospect, is a worthy counterpart to Chattanooga’s Creative Discovery Museum. Our own Discovery Center pales by comparison and is struggling just to survive. Its board of directors has elaborate plans for a new facility, but it’s been frustrated in procuring a desired downtown site and then launching a fund-raising campaign to build on it. The city’s old convention center would represent an optimum location, but there are many competing claims for it. Unfortunately, Haslam isn’t presently inclined to become a Discovery Center champion because, “I have yet to see the vision of why that’s integral to the future of Knoxville.”
The Discovery Center board needs to project that vision. And then it wouldn’t take nearly as much boldness as Corker has provided in Chattanooga for Knoxville’s leadership to rally to fulfill the community’s need for an engaging educational experience that can also serve as a downtown family attraction.