Quality of life is linked tightly to economic prosperity.
Economic prosperity is linked to an ability to compete on a global scale. Success in attracting new investors to a region is only as complete as the infrastructure that is in place to support it. These are the principles at the foundation of Thrive 2055, a comprehensive initiative to support our region’s ability to compete effectively for new business while developing a sustainable 40-year growth plan for 16 counties crossing Southeast Tennessee, North Georgia and Northeast Alabama.
By Michael E. Haskew
What is Thrive 2055?
The regional initiative, under the leadership of a 32-member committee headed by Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce CEO Brian Anderson and Project Manager Bridgett Massengill, is a three-year effort designed to address priorities and challenges related to new business investments, anticipated population growth, allocation of resources, and the development and maintenance of necessary infrastructures.
Year one of Thrive 2055 involves identifying goals and values for the region, as well as needs in the broad categories of “People,” “Places,” “Prosperity,” and “Paths.” Years two and three involve establishing a regional vision based on community input, and developing a “business plan” for the region.
Funding for the project is a joint effort. Chattanooga and Hamilton County have each contributed $500,000, while local foundations including the Lyndhurst Foundation, the Benwood Foundation, Community Foundation and Maclellan Foundation have together invested $1 million. The rest of Thrive’s $2.5 million budget comes from the private sector, thanks to the fundraising work of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce.
Why do it?
1. The full effects of 4 billion dollars of new investments have not yet been felt.
One major catalyst for Thrive 2055 is the expectation that $4 billion of new business investments (including those of corporate giants Volkswagen, Wacker Chemie, Alstom, and Amazon) will continue to create demands on existing infrastructures as they continue to positively impact the regional economy.
Area leaders point to the similarities between Chattanooga and Greenville, SC—a city that experienced rapid growth and a litany of challenges following the completion of a BMW assembly plant that began production in 1994.
“This all started when the Chamber took a group of people to Greenville, South Carolina in 2008. The people in Greenville said, ‘Plan, plan, plan, ’” says Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ron Harr.“While Volkswagen has been a great boon to our region, it has potential for expansion and additional growth. Wacker isn’t even operating yet. We won’t know the impact of that until they are fully employed and producing.”
Bruz Clark, president of the Lyndhurst Foundation, describes how the delegation to Greenville put together a report of what they had learned after they returned. “The essence of the report was to foster collaboration, communication and also cooperation,” Clark says. “Specifically, some of the things were to think and act regionally, which is what Thrive is all about, create effective communication channels among various municipalities, and be prepared for multidimensional growth—the expansion of businesses and industries, an influx of people, and major consumption of land.”
A “Forces and Trends” report released by Thrive 2055’s coordinating committee shows a remarkable similarity between the expected growth trends for our 16-county region and that for the 10-county region comprising the Greenville/Spartanburg area. Where the “Ten at the Top region” (10 county Greenville/Spartanburg area) has grown, and is expected to continue to grow at an average rate of 1.16% from 1999-2030 (31 years), the “Thrive region” is projected to grow at an average rate of 0.88% percent over a period of 44 years (2011-2055). That means that if these projections are correct, the population for our 16-county region will increase by 400,000 by 2055.
Not surprising, this type of population growth driven by the expansion of business and industries will present new challenges, including:
•Housing/Land: More housing and land needed to accommodate it will be required for a larger regional population.
•Roads: Major Interstates will require maintenance and improvements.
•Trained Workforce: A newly trained workforce will be needed to support the needs of potential employers, as many jobs created by new investment will be technical and require well-defined skill sets. “Processes change, and manufacturing is going through a technological revolution,” says Beth Jones, executive director of the Southest Tennessee Development District. “Many of the jobs created will be more technical in nature. We will be looking at programs offered by educational institutions in the region to determine how we can provide skilled labor most efficiently.”
And these are only a couple of the issues regional planners will potentially face in charting the economic course for our 16-county area. “It’s hard to predict the future,” comments Bruz Clark. “but I think we will witness increased land consumption, pressure on fire, police, and school systems, increased demand for infrastructure, and increased pressure on our natural resources.”
2. On top of this, there is a likelihood that Chattanooga will continue to attract new investments.
“You’ve got the ripple effect when new investment comes to a region,” Massengill says. “When new companies come in, it raises the confidence level among other investors to want to come to a region. We’ve seen that since 2008. The idea that ‘success breeds success’ has proven to be true.”
On top of the ripple effect, the expectation that businesses will continue to choose Chattanooga is bolstered by the city’s natural beauty, pro-business climate, smart grid system, and high speed broadband capabilities. In 2010, EPB and Chattanooga pioneered the introduction of one-gigabit per second internet speeds across an area of 600 square miles as well as a smart grid that reduces power outages and optimizes the availability of electricity to residences and manufacturing giants alike.
“This region is certainly on the fast track for competing effectively on a world stage, particularly given the worldwide recognition we have recently gained for our technological advancements,” reasons Bridgett Massengill, Thrive 2055 project director.
“We are already seeing important activity,” comments Harr. “The Chamber is receiving calls from all over the world, and we need to capitalize on that – getting the highest and best employers with the best pay and the best environmental impact. We can’t be limited just to downtown Chattanooga or greater Hamilton County for new business growth since there is a limit to the industrial land that is available. We have to find a greater regional solution to continue our economic progress and get along across regional boundaries.”
3. A regional approach is mutually beneficial for communities as it makes the area more competitive as a whole.
“[Regional planning] is happening all over really, in other countries too,” explains Armando Carbonell, chairman of the Department of Planning and Urban Form with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and a national expert on regional planning who came to Chattanooga to speak as part of the Hunter Lecture Series. “I think you can look at anything from Glasgow in Scotland, who came back through a top regional development strategy, to California, where they are actively ‘blueprint planning.’”
“The world at large is looking at regions to compete for new business growth and economic prosperity,” explains Clark. “Research done by an organization called America 2050 indicates that the U.S. consists of 10 to 11 mega-regions—clusters of areas that will most likely be more competitive and prosperous if they coordinate their activities. From a planning standpoint, I think it makes complete sense to embrace this idea.”
The “big idea” behind regional planning is cooperation between local governments and private enterprise so that everyone benefits from a process focused on effectively managing growth and allocating scarce resources. Cooperation, rather than competition, is the smart play when it comes to attracting new industries.
Carbonell also cites the Denver metropolitan area as a great example for regional planning. “Communities in the Denver regional growth area actually formed a pact that they would not steal businesses from one another and that they would market the region as a single entity,” he says. “The area is fast growing and has a really strong economy.”
Massengill agrees. “We are not competing within communities, but in regions. The more we can have people understand that, the more we will be able to keep companies here rather than losing them to another part of the country, or somewhere else outside of the country.”
4. Planning can only help, not hurt.
“You ask ‘Why Thrive 2055?’ I ask, ‘Why not?’” says Anderson. “If we don’t plan, we are at the mercy of being reactive. There are horror stories in Columbus, Georgia. When Kia came in, they needed more schools, roads, water. You can’t build that stuff overnight. We are also living in an area of scarce resources, so we have to use the resources we do have even more proactively and judiciously then we have in the past.”
“We don’t want change happen to us. We want change to happen by us,” says Massengill. “Forty years from now, the region will not be the same. So let’s all get to the table and talk about that so we are proud and happy of where we are as a region. Do we want to be proactively talking about it? Or 40 years from now, do we want to be asking, ‘Why did we let change happen to us?’”
“There’s nothing that says we will fail as a region, but we will only be stronger if we collaborate,” she continues. “Already, I’ve seen parties involved with economic development in the region talking to each other. They are learning that through collaboration they can collectively be more competitive and stronger.”
According to Massengill, the people of this region are leading the effort to identify values and priorities for Thrive 2055. While numerous topics for discussion have been identified, meetings held across the region during the month of April generated ideas and presented perspectives on the future. “We are starting by asking people what they love the most about this region,” she notes, “starting from their specific hometown to the entire 16-county region. In doing so, we are beginning to establish the core values that people of this region have for this place.”
With the future comes a greater need to be more competitive on a global scale for new industry, employment, higher paying jobs and a greater standard of living. With economic prosperity comes a requirement to invest in managed growth and suitable infrastructures. Without it, the 16 counties of our region could experience the headaches currently experienced in other cities where unmanaged growth has led to lower quality living conditions. On top of that, good stewardship of our natural resources is imperative to preserve, protect, and defend the environmental attributes that make our region one of the most desirable places to live. Values are to be determined. Planning is required. Thrive 2055 is progressing with high hopes for generations to come.