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 Kim White from River City Company, a non-profit company promoting economic development in Chattanooga.
Welcome, Kim. Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Kim White and I’m President & CEO of River City Company (RCC), the economic development engine for Downtown Chattanooga. I’m a great lover of our city.
I am a never-ending promoter of downtown Chattanooga and all the amazing projects and places that make it special. I’m an advocate for projects and developments that will enhance the quality of life for our community. I’m a tireless cheerleader for my alma mater, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). Most of all in my role at River City Company, I am a connector of ideas and opportunities that will help move our city forward.
How does being an artist help you help Chattanooga?
In my four years at UTC, I earned a liberal arts degree. In my 31 years in business, I have earned an “on the job” Masters in Business and a PhD in Psychology. Whew! What a combination!
Seriously, having a liberal arts education has been a big plus. It has always helped me think outside the box, and work to find unusual solutions to issues. I know there is more than one path in getting to a solution in any situation. This has been helpful, both personally and in my role at RCC. If downtown development was easy, anyone could do it. Our role is to come to the table to help solve issues and bridge gaps. Different thinking is a huge asset.
The most important thing I learned at UTC wasn’t about mixing colors and expressing myself on canvas. It was about how I could express myself through campus involvement. It was a great foundation for learning about the responsibility and obligation of leadership. I learned the importance of networking, of getting involved and working to make a difference. I have used those skills throughout my career and have always been involved in any community I’ve lived in. That’s been a game changer for me personally. Luckily, I get to put these skills to work in a community that really values the importance of working together.
How are you and River City Company involved in the tech scene in Chattanooga?
We contribute in many ways to the tech scene in Chattanooga. The most obvious is that we continue to focus on developments and projects that make our downtown great and enhance the quality of life. A great downtown filled with great places attracts young, talented people. The proof is in the pudding. For 30 years, we focused on building a great city … and now, yes, here they come.
We also work with property owners and developers on recruiting great restaurants and retailers. We are working with the city and foundations on enhancements to our public spaces, such as Miller Park, Plaza and Patten Parkway. We work to bring cool, unexpected events and projects to downtown, like pop-up outdoor movies and filling downtown windows with cool art and tech installations.
We also work with our partners, such as The Enterprise Center and the Lamp Post Group, to tell the amazing Chattanooga story to the companies, cities and individuals that come to Chattanooga either to look at relocating here or learning from us.
What changes have you experienced since you returned to the city after being away for 20 years?
The biggest change … there are actually people downtown! When I left the city, no one came downtown. I moved back when the 21st Century Waterfront was under construction and there was so much excitement and energy in this city.
This has just continued to grow. I love being downtown any time of day, any time of the week and see it filled with people of all ages and types … tourists to families. It’s amazing!
How did your 20-year absence help involve you the city’s transformation?
It’s great to experience different cities. I have learned what to do, and what not to do. I have seen cities and organizations that work together and those that don’t. I’ve seen thriving and dying downtowns.
Twenty years away from Chattanooga gave me new eyes and experience with which to appreciate our city more.
Tell us about the best way to experience what makes Chattanooga special
My absolutely favorite way to experience this city is on my early morning walks with my dog Bella. Before the city is fully awake, that’s when you can feel the heartbeat of Chattanooga. Downtown is filled with people early in the morning … taking their dogs for walks, running the bridges or just out walking and beginning the day.
The most magical place in the world to begin the day is at the Bluff View Art District. You are surrounded by world-class art – sculptures, overhanging the cliffs and positioned in the park. I love to stand on the overlook, right as the sun is rising over the Tennessee River. No matter how many times I do it, it still gives me chills. This is place where everything that makes Chattanooga special for me, collides.
True or False: Chattanooga is the coolest city in the South.
True. Here are a few reasons why:
- Great outdoor scene
- Cool, local restaurant vibe
- Walkable & Bikeable
- Great Quality of Life
- Amazing Public Art
- A growing music scene
- A growing start up scene
- A place where authenticity is admired and celebrated
- The coolest rock climbing facility in the country
- You can jump off a mountain or choose to climb it to the top
- More bicycles than briefcases
- You don’t have to “be from here” to be here
- You can find our much touted United States Senator at a local pub and call him by his first name
- We have our own song
- We have our own font
- We have the fastest Internet in the world
- VW chose us as their North American Headquarters
- We have Ironman and now the ½-Iron man
- The US Cycle Time trials are here
- The largest rowing regatta in the country is here
- A free downtown electric shuttle has been running downtown for over 20 years
- It’s one of the most BEAUTIFUL cities in America
- A river runs through it
- One of the best running/hiking areas in the country
- A great local retail scene
- The passion people have for making our city great makes us really cool
- Cool people choose to live here … which makes us even cooler
Atlanta’s tech community has grown significantly in recent years. What are start-ups and tekkies missing by not coming to Chattanooga?
Quality of life and free time that they are now spending in a car. Wouldn’t you rather be climbing mountains, riding your bike, rowing on a river or just enjoying a great craft beer at a cool restaurant/bar instead of being behind someone else’s exhaust on I-285?
Besides spending time in traffic, another BIG thing they are missing … the ability to be a big player and make an impact in a great community. In Atlanta, you are one of thousands. How many people really know you and what you are doing? Here, we celebrate our tekkies and entrepreneurs. Come to Chattanooga and be a Rock Star!
What’s your favorite River City success story?
The fact that, as a private non-profit, we’ve continued to be relevant and to play a very important role in moving our city forward for more than 30 years. Just think of how many mayors and partners we have had to navigate over this period of time!
We’ve been involved in everything from downtown housing, the Aquarium and the Riverwalk to raising money for a downtown elementary school. We’ve been integral in setting design standards, developing a downtown movie theater and we’ve developed an UNBELIEVABLE one-of-a-kind climbing facility. And the list goes on. Can you tell we’re proud?
My favorite project will be any one we’ve just successfully completed! Our work is never finished.
Is there any trouble in River City that you and your team hope to solve in the next decade?
The workforce housing shortage downtown. We’ve built a great city, filled it with cool people and places, and there are not enough places for people to live!
How will you and River City Company contribute to that achievement?
A year and half ago we completed a downtown market study which showed the tremendous need for downtown housing. We then worked with our public and private partners and involved over 600 people in the community to come together to plan for a vibrant City Center.
This plan has been our playbook. This year, we know of over 400 rental housing units that will be announced. Of the 22 buildings we identified in the City Center Plan as under-utilized and in need for re-development, 11 of those properties have development plans in the works.
Our role is to continue to promote and advocate for the right kind of development and to work with developers to make this development occur.
We also worked with the City of Chattanooga on using incentives as a way to encourage affordable housing. We now have a PILOT (tax-freeze incentive) in place that offers benefits to developers that set aside 20% of their units for people making 80% of the medium income.
In the true Chattanooga Way, it takes all of us – private and public sector – working together to move the needle.
Any final thoughts?
It’s difficult to put into words what makes Chattanooga so special. I do know that anyone who truly experiences the city quickly becomes a passionate advocate for it. Half my meetings are now filled with people who “chose” Chattanooga. They didn’t grow up here, but got here as quickly as they could.