Moving Forward from Chattanooga
Ron Littlefield, the former mayor of Chattanooga, said municipal leaders in Tennessee’s fourth-largest city haven’t been too proud to listen to others’ ideas — and steal them.
For example, in 1981, before launching a decades-long revitalization plan, Littlefield — then a city planner — and other officials visited Indianapolis to talk economic development, but also found inspiration in the recreational activities taking place along Indy’s White River. Once back at home, they launched efforts to promote recreation — kayakers, regattas, and the like — on the Tennessee River.
They weren’t done. A visit to Baltimore spurred the construction of the Tennessee Aquarium. The Creative Discovery Museum was inspired by children’s museums in Charlotte and Birmingham. And so on.
“We shamelessly stole things from all over, and we’re proud of it,” Littlefield said. “We tried to do it better than they did.”
That spirit of sharing — or stealing, as the case may be — is the driver behind City2City Pioneer Valley, a program that, every year or two, brings a host of Springfield-area leaders to a city with similar demographics and challenges; Chattanooga was the fourth such stop after visits, over the past several years, to Grand Rapids, Mich.; Winston-Salem/Greensboro, N.C.; and Allentown/Bethlehem, Pa.
And Chattanooga certainly had no shortage of ideas to chew on (see story, page 6), from its high-speed broadband network, which has drawn a number of high-tech businesses the city, to the way its public, private, and nonprofit sectors work closely together to fund projects; from its riverfront revitalization to its ambitious efforts to cultivate innovative startups. All have parallels to challenges the Pioneer Valley is facing.
So, what happens now?
That’s the big question, and one that has dogged the City2City program since its inception. The only initiative launched in Western Mass. as a direct result of a City2City visit is the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley, a Springfield-based program modeled after a similar initiative in Grand Rapids.
That’s about it. There has been plenty of talk about what Greater Springfield can do better, but little in the way of tangible changes based on these trips. That’s not to say the education, inspiration, and idea sharing that participants experience isn’t valuable; it certainly is. But what’s the next step?
After all, Springfield today has an underutilized riverfront, a waterway far cleaner than the polluted Tennessee River of the 1960s and 1970s, when efforts began to connect Chattanooga’s riverfront with its downtown district. Springfield faces the same type of manufacturing skills gap Chattanooga does, as well as similar challenges graduating students from underperforming schools.
To be fair, there are some lessons Chattanooga could take from Springfield, should their leaders ever come here. Connections between our region’s colleges and workforce-training organizations seem more robust than in Chattanooga, for instance. Leaders in Chattanooga seem hesitant to fully discuss the racial gentrification issues that beset their downtown neighborhoods. And healthcare drives economic development in far deeper ways in the Pioneer Valley than they do in Southeastern Tennessee.
It’s probably most accurate to say both cities have something to learn from each other. The challenge now, in Springfield and its environs, is to put into action what we’ve learned, and get to work turning this region into a destination officials from other cities will want to visit — and steal from.
In some respects, it’s already there.