In this series we’re talking about cities that were rundown but are re-inventing themselves, as using technology to do so. We’re trying to get to the bottom of the questions, “What does it take to turn around a struggling city?” and “Can technology help?”
Our initial focus is on the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Scroll to the bottom of the post to see links to all the articles in this series.
This week we’re talking with Beau Moffatt, a web designer who’s closely connected to the WordPress and Chattanooga communities.
Hi. Who are you and what do you do?
As a Web strategist, I help our clients with everything from improving the factors that affect website SEO to email marketing campaigns and social media strategies, so they can better connect with their ideal clients and customers.
If you’re based in Jacksonville, Florida, how are you involved in the tech scene in Chattanooga?
Well, our agency, Open Sky Web Studio, is based in Jacksonville, Florida, but I actually live and work in Chattanooga. So, many of my direct personal relationships within the tech community are here. I’m a member of the WordPress Chattanooga Meetup group where others in the Web development and design industry come together monthly to network, learn and share ideas with one another.
WordPress is an increasingly popular open source platform for website development and a tool for online content management. One of the real strengths of this platform is its open source nature that seems to drive a sense of community among its users.
My experience has been that WordPress users and developers are extremely willing to give back to the WordPress community. I believe that sense of giving naturally bleeds over into giving back to their communities at large.
What does Chattanooga specifically offer you and your work as a Web strategist?
Since nearly all of my work for Open Sky is done remotely, Chattanooga’s connectivity to the Internet is a huge benefit. Being able to quickly host video calls or sync large amounts of data with clients and other team members speeds up our production schedule. As a photographer, our ability to upload at super-fast speeds over EPB’s fiber connections is a huge asset for our offsite storage workflow.
The other real bonus to Chattanooga’s widespread fiber optic connectivity is that you can effectively work from almost anywhere in the city – any number of coffee shops, co-working spaces, sitting outside on a nice day or from a home office. That kind of flexibility is great from a work/life balance and creativity standpoint!
Chattanooga appears to have rebuilt itself from a rather run-down city. What changes have you seen?
No offense taken. When we moved to Chattanooga about 10 years ago, the downtown and riverfront areas were just starting to show outward signs of their turnaround. Many of our friends who had lived in Chattanooga their whole lives told us about how dangerous downtown used to be.
Years ago, Chattanooga’s economy was built on the back of manufacturing and industrial facilities that, frankly, left the city and environment broken, dirty and in need. During my time in Chattanooga, I’ve witnessed a concentrated effort by city and county governments, public utilities, businesses and citizen groups to take calculated risks and make investments in Chattanooga’s future that are continuing to pay off well.
Our super-fast fiber optic Internet connections today resulted from decisions made a decade or more ago by our publicly owned power company, EPB (Electric Power Board). EPB started building a Smart Grid power distribution infrastructure on a fiber optic backbone.
Also, I’m reminded every time I travel and have to work away from Chattanooga just how much more efficient the basic functions of my job are made by the infrastructure here.
True or False: Chattanooga is the coolest city in the South.
I honestly never thought I would live anywhere in Tennessee. Being a native of North Carolina, I’ve always been partial to my home state. But my wife and I found ourselves in Chattanooga starting our careers just as the city’s resurgence was starting to come about and we’ve loved seeing Chattanooga blossom and continue to grow.
We’re both runners and love the outdoors, so the only problem we have is deciding which of the many state and national parks to go to because we have so many within a 15-20 minute drive of our house. We’ve got amazing trails and races all year long, whether you’re a runner, cyclist, swimmer or spectator.
The downtown, riverfront and North Shore areas are great for taking walks. There’s always something happening with lots of great restaurants, music venues and festivals. The Southside part of the city also has tons of artists and restaurants to check out. On a Friday night, you can listen to free live music at Miller Plaza, then ride the free electric shuttle from one side of downtown to the other for dinner or drinks.
I could go on and on about the awesome events, festivals, local breweries, restaurants, etc. that Chattanooga has but what really makes this city cool are its people. Being from the South, I know a thing or two about other southern cities. I’ve recognized the unique blend of people that has started to emerge in Chattanooga and it’s stood out to me as something special. I believe this is due in large part to the influx of tech companies and startups that are coming here. It’s an interesting blend of hipsters, outdoor enthusiasts, business people, artists and local families with deep Southern roots. The same is true of any successful business: it’s the people that make a place stand out.
What do you think Chattanooga offers tekkies more than other cities … even Jacksonville?
The Internet speed and its relatively low price are obviously huge draws for tech companies, but the community feel to this city is another strong selling point for Chattanooga.
Other major cities in the South, including Jacksonville, have networking meetings for tech professionals and Meetups like the one I mentioned before, but few of them have the same sense of buy-in from the larger community and local governments like Chattanooga.
It almost feels like everyone knows our future lies in this direction so we’re all pushing together.
Chattanooga is also a great place to start a family and raise kids. Of course there’s crime here, like there is anywhere else, but between our Aquarium, Children’s Discovery Museum, Rock City, Coolidge Park and the Walking Bridge spanning the Tennessee River – and all of the other outdoor attractions – you’ll never run out of cool places to take your kids.
What could Jacksonville or other cities learn from Chattanooga?
I think other cities could benefit by learning from the partnerships and process Chattanooga’s leaders took 10-20 years ago in choosing which areas they were going to invest in strategically for the future. There have undoubtedly been challenges to overcome for all partners in this process. Learning how they overcame their problems and how the partnerships are structured could be a real benefit to other cities.
A key to Chattanooga’s process that I’ve seen over the last 10 years is River City Company, a private non-profit that has played a large role in shaping the city’s turnaround. At several key points in the city planning process they have been able to effectively engage the larger community in providing feedback and ideas that have had real impacts on zoning and spending decisions.
Jacksonville has invested so much time and money in developing The Landing area of downtown, yet so many other downtown areas are still struggling. I think there are tangible lessons to be learned from the way Chattanooga’s leadership has taken on their revitalization.
What would Chattanooga have to do to become the next Silicon Valley?
Chattanooga becoming the next Silicon Valley is an idea I’ve heard bounced around quite a bit in the last year or two. While this city has already largely turned around from where it was even a decade ago when I first came, there’s still a lot of untapped potential here.
We need to continue to see the kind of infrastructure improvements that have brought us this far, while laying foundations for future growth. The city is situated at a key intersection of two major interstates (I-24, I-75) and the Tennessee River, but more needs to be done to make travel easier.
We’re about two hours from Atlanta and Nashville by car. There has been a lot of discussion of a high-speed commuter train to connect Chattanooga with Atlanta to significantly cut that time. I’d love to see something like that happen!
Chattanooga must continue to be a forward thinking and planning city. I believe the distance we’ve come in such a relatively short time shows the great potential we have to be leaders in the technology and business sectors going forward.
Any final thoughts?
Chattanooga is a great city to live, work and play in. We’ve come a long way but have so much further we can go. I’ll be excited to see where we are in another 10 or 20 years!