A Restoring Prosperity Case Study: Chattanooga Tennessee

Chattanooga a few years ago faced what many smaller cities are struggling with today—a sudden decline after years of prosperity in the “old” economy. This case study offers a roadmap for these cities by chronicling Chattanooga’s demise and rebirth.

Chattanooga is located in the southern end of the Tennessee Valley where the Tennessee River cuts through the Smoky Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau. The city’s location, particularly its proximity to the Tennessee River, has been one of its greatest assets. Today, several major interstates (I-24, I-59, and I-75) run through Chattanooga, making it a hub of transportation business. The city borders North Georgia and is less than an hour away from both Alabama and North Carolina. Atlanta, Nashville, and Birmingham are all within two hours travel time by car.

Chattanooga is Tennessee’s fourth largest city, with a population in 2000 of 155,554, and it covers an area of 143.2 square miles. Among the 200 most populous cities in the United States, Chattanooga—with 1,086.5 persons per square mile—ranks 190th in population density.2 It is the most populous of 10 municipalities in Hamilton County, which has a population of 307,896, covers an area of 575.7 square miles, and has a population density of 534.8 persons per square mile.

With its extensive railroads and river access, Chattanooga was at one time the “Dynamo of Dixie”—a bustling, midsized, industrial city in the heart of the South. By 1940, Chattanooga’s population was centered around a vibrant downtown and it was one of the largest cities in the United States. Just 50 years later, however, it was in deep decline. Manufacturing jobs continued to leave. The city’s white population had fled to the suburbs and downtown was a place to be avoided, rather than the economic center of the region. The city lost almost 10 percent of its population during the 1960s, and another 10 percent between 1980 and 1990. It would have lost more residents had it not been for annexation of outlying suburban areas.

The tide began to turn in the 1990s, with strategic investments by developing public-private partnerships—dubbed the “Chattanooga way.” These investments spurred a dramatic turnaround. The city’s population has since stabilized and begun to grow, downtown has been transformed, and it is once again poised to prosper in the new economy as it had in the old.

This report describes how Chattanooga has turned its economy around. It begins with a summary of how the city grew and developed during its first 150 years before describing the factors driving its decline. The report concludes by examining the partnerships and planning that helped spur Chattanooga’s current revitalization and providing valuable lessons to other older industrial cities trying to ignite their own economic recovery. 

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