Americans are thought of as a “can do” people. That spirit is captured in a saying that has been around for most of my life. When life hands you lemons, the saying goes, make lemonade. Squeeze the juice from that sour fruit, mix in water and a lot of sugar, and you have a refreshing drink.
I have just completed the first of our detailed Top Seven Intelligent Community profiles. It tells the story of Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA
, a city of 330,000 on the banks of the Tennessee River. And I have to tell you: they make a terrific glass of lemonade in that fair city.
A 2011 Top Seven Intelligent Community of the Year
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From the late 19th Century well into the 20th, Chattanooga built a prosperous economy on a foundation of heavy industry, in particular, a cluster of foundries casting metal parts. As we know now, employment in heavy industry was doomed to decline in the United States beginning in the 1970s. But before that became evident, Chattanooga had to confront another aspect of its industrial legacy. In 1969, the US government named it the city with the dirtiest air in America.
The designation shocked the community into action. The city council joined with local manufacturers and doctors to pioneer an air-quality control program. An air pollution control bureau motivated manufacturers to invest $10m in pollution control. The effort proved so successful that the US Environmental Protection Agency recognized it as a national model in 1972.
That intense local collaboration across government, business and institutions set a pattern, which stood the community in good stead through the tough decades of the 70s, 80s and 90s. The city became famous in those years for pouring millions into urban regeneration. The city center and riverfront became objects of pride for Chattanoogans - but once the construction ended, the impact on employment was minimal. The entire decade of the 1990s passed without producing a single new major employer.
No so the first decade of the new century. Educational leaders have joined forces to create the workforce of the future. Government and nonprofit foundations are funding business incubation and acceleration aimed at high tech startups as well as a growing arts and entertainment cluster. And the city-owned utility has completed installation of the most advanced Smart Grid project in America, which will not only save the utility and its customers millions in coming years but bring 1 Gbps broadband to every home and business in the service area. Call centers are moving into town. A university’s computer simulation center is becoming a national asset. And Volkswagen has decided to open a major assembly plant, selecting Chattanooga over competitors because of its advanced ICT infrastructure.
They have been handed quite a few lemons over the years in Chattanooga. ICF salutes their example of collaborative and determined leadership that is transforming a sour legacy into sustainable success.