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Tennessee Takeaways: Chamber group visits Chattanooga

Outdoors and property development are among topics chamber delegation is now studying

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The great outdoors – and how to incorporate it more into the Queen City’s identity – is on the mind of a large contingency of Springfield area representatives who returned Sept. 15 from a multiday visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

About 80 businesspeople embarked on the 25th annual Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce Community Leadership Visit to the southeastern Tennessee city of nearly 180,000 residents. The trip is the chamber’s second trip to the city, having first visited in 1998.

A takeaway was the city’s emphasis on the outdoors and its entrepreneurial culture, which is fostering growth in the information technology space – hence Chattanooga’s nickname as a “Gig City.”

“They’ve been very effective at building on to their natural assets with a very ‘outdoors everywhere’ culture,” said chamber President Matt Morrow. “I hope we have an opportunity to really exploit that in a special way as well.”

Panel discussions dotted the two-day agenda, covering topics from entrepreneurism and workforce preparation to education innovation and leveraging city assets.

Outdoor identity
Attendees say Chattanooga officials have embraced the outdoors and its position along the Tennessee River.

Morrow said the river loops around the city, enabling the community to incorporate a lot of outdoor events, such as Ironman competitions, kayaking and canoeing. It’s part of their identity and culture now, he said.

Tracy Kimberlin, president and CEO of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, also visited Chattanooga 20 years ago on the chamber’s first Community Leadership Visit to the city.

He remembers visiting the Tennessee Aquarium, which opened in 1992, and has since recorded 1.5 million visitors as its highest attendance in a single year.

As Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium, approached the one-year anniversary in Springfield, Kimberlin expected it would beat the Tennessee Aquarium attendance mark.

“In my view, there’s no comparison in quality of those two facilities,” he said, upon returning from the recent chamber trip. “Wonders of Wildlife is far superior.”

At a WOW event held Sept. 20, officials  announced its estimated annual attendance at 1.6 million visitors.

Morrow said Springfield officials should develop a concrete plan to incorporate WOW and the Bass Pro Shops campus into citywide development, such as connecting corridors.

“It’s very clear we have an opportunity to capitalize on a world class outside attraction,” he said. “That’s something that communities our size simply don’t have.”

Aside from WOW, he said the Springfield area has plenty of its own outdoor assets – lakes, rivers and creeks – that could become building blocks for development.

Development dialogue
Since he visited in 1998, Kimberlin observed plenty of newer hotels in Chattanooga’s downtown riverfront area. The city’s hotel room count is around 10,000, compared with about 6,000 in Springfield.

He said Chattanooga leaders have been deliberate in planning, requiring developers follow design specifications in certain areas. Kimberlin noticed a swagger to development in the city.

“They do have a lot of self-confidence. They know they can get it done and they do it,” he said. “They think big and plan big and pull it off. We’re very conservative here. We initially think big but value engineer it. We sometimes value engineer it to the point that it’s not big anymore.”

Morrow said Chattanooga also has made some bold moves, such as extending broadband access to everyone in the community. In 2010, Chattanooga became the first city in the country to roll out a citywide gigabit network – a $330 million project, with $111 million in federal funds and the remainder in bonds, according to media reports in Tennessee at the time.

“That was really just their play to foster an entrepreneurial ecosystem and culture that has really fostered significant growth in their IT systems,” he said.

In downtown Springfield, IDEA Commons, a nearly 90-acre area, has the chance to be a bold move forward for the city, Morrow noted. Focusing on innovation, design, entrepreneurship and the arts, he said continued development could present scenarios where other sites immediately surrounding IDEA Commons could become more valuable and attractive to private development.

“It’s a very complex deal,” he said. “But if we could get it done, it’ll be the kind of project that we look back on and see it was the beginning of a lot of other really special things happening downtown.”

Unified message
Ozarks Technical Community College Chancellor Hal Higdon attended this year’s CLV after last going in 2013, which also was in Tennessee, when Nashville served as the host. He toured the Center for Advanced Technology on the campus of Chattanooga State Community College, which he said is similar to the Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Technology project OTC is tackling.

A request for qualifications will be advertised in the next couple of weeks, Higdon said, with hopes to start the design phase by September 2019.

The Chattanooga college converted an old Olan Mills manufacturing plant. It’s much smaller and less robust than OTC’s $20 million planned project, he added.

While comparable to Springfield, Higdon said Chattanooga does a better job at presenting a unified message of what’s great about their city.

“What I do think we found out is that we do things really well here, but we’re maybe not that good bragging about it,” Higdon said. “We tend to down sell our capabilities here in the Ozarks. … I think we see it as being humble, but sometimes we need to crow a little bit.”

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