Editor’s note: The following article is offered in continuation of our series of articles on Public Health.
By Neal Peirce
Washington Post Writers Group
Posted: Friday, Jul. 08, 2011
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. A handsomely made, people-friendly Riverwalk runs along the Tennessee River, tied to the old Walnut Street Bridge that’s been painted a deep happy blue and is now reserved for walkers and bikers. The Tennessee Aquarium features freshwater fish. Electric, fare-free buses run up and down Broad Street. There’s lots of art, outdoor sculpture included.
From a smoke-clogged industrial disaster a generation ago, Chattanooga has come a stunning distance, spurred on by organized citizen action and generous local foundations. It recently garnered national attention by attracting Volkswagen’s new $1 billion LEED-aggressive assembly plant.
But all is not well. The downtown has an empty feel – in fact 1 million square feet of vacant office space. Relations remain strained between the city and the rural Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama counties that surround it. Education levels still lag seriously.
So what’s next? It’s a mix of bytes and bites, or put another way, fast gigabytes and slow food. That’s the fascinating mix for this decade that Chattanooga political and business leaders had to tell a meeting of the Citistates Group, which I chair, in Chattanooga late last month.
Leading the byte breakthrough is the city-owned Chattanooga Electric Power Board, which services 170,000 customers across nine Tennessee and Georgia counties. Winning a highly competitive $111.5 million matching grant under the 2009 Recovery Act, it’s installing a fiber optics network capable of providing one gigabit-per-second Internet service. Among the fastest in the world, it’s 200 times faster than the average national download speed today.
Receptors in the system will make it possible to create a “smart grid” to warn communities of oncoming weather disasters, to monitor sewage – averting any overflows into the river – and to fight crime. The utility’s latest goal is to connect every streetlight to the grid, making it possible to turn up the lighting at any location to intense, high levels when a crime incident is suspected.
The reliability of the grid’s electric power supply is also rising – proved this April when the utility was able to perform a rapid restoration when a tornado ripped through the region, cutting off many customers’ power. Plus, consumers will have new power to monitor their electricity use.
The Chattanoogians’ next challenge is how to build a new economy around the rapid smart grid service – and before other regions catch up. New companies may be attracted, for example, by virtually instantaneous videoconference capability that might attract footloose young entrepreneurs in search of short commutes, mountain trails and other smaller city amenities. There is some question about how well the region supports startup firms, but an “angel” venture capital fund – Chattanooga Renaissance – fills some of the gap.
Chattanooga’s other ambitious new agenda is promotion of locally grown foods – tasty, healthy, fresh, and produced from city backyards out to the 13-county surrounding area. The food initiative is being pushed by the locally based Benwood Foundation, committing $1.65 million to a three-year “Gaining Ground” initiative.
In one way, it is a throwback to the past, when local farmers could sell their produce, poultry and meats to local wholesalers. But the nation’s move to gigantic national processing chains and factory farms has shredded the local system. Today, says Jeff Pfitzer, leader of the Chattanooga region’s new local food movement, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the region’s food spending goes to area farms. Raising the figure to 5 percent, he calculates, would represent $100 million in economic development.
There are basic health issues too, including food “deserts,” both in the low-income Chattanooga neighborhoods and county areas suffering high poverty levels.
But Gaining Ground seems ready to take on the broad challenges, from providing people with skills on how to grow their own food to creating new regionwide sales channels for local produce. It’s launched “Chattanooga Grown” – a “Harvested Here” branding that highlights 80 quality-checked local farms that already sell directly to consumers or through grocery stores and restaurants.
“The strategic value of this initiative means it should be treated as a major economic issue,” notes David Crockett, director of Chattanooga’s Office of Sustainability and a former city council chair. “It links all parts of our community. It responds to the threat to our national security posed by long supply lines. It protects farmland from subdivisions. And it poses a real intergovernmental challenge, spanning a three-state area.”
The point is intriguing: If a human and economic need as basic as food can’t reconnect city and county, making allies of longtime competitors, then what can? And if not Chattanooga, with its track record as a successful risk-taker, then what other American city?
Neal Peirce is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2011/07/08/2436344/fast-bytes-and-slow-food-chattanoogas.html#ixzz1RWUSXcoB