The Wealth of Regions
by Bill Dodge
August 22, 2011
“There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. After them will arise seven years of famine, and the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; the famine will consume the land.” Genesis 41:29-30
The latest famine to modest plenty cycle in Chattanooga is longer than seven years, but tells an impressive turnaround story!
By the 1980s, Chattanooga lost its manufacturing clout and became a deserted core in a struggling region. The combination of decades of air and water pollution, followed by the demise of the industries that had fouled the environment, resulted in the abandonment of downtown. Some fled to the suburbs, but all too many left for growing regions, such as nearby Atlanta.
Today, Chattanooga is becoming a vibrant core in a growing region. The nation’s largest fresh water aquarium, together with museums, theatres, and other amenities, has made downtown a regional playground. New downtown housing on both sides of the Tennessee River is beginning to create a demand for downtown retail shops and services. New and classic office buildings are attracting businesses back to Chattanooga. A free electric bus service makes navigating the downtown facile for tourists as well as workers and residents.
Downtown renewal is also spurring development region wide. Surrounding neighborhoods are being rebuilt. EPB, the regional power company, has installed fiber optic region wide and offers a gigabyte of broadband, an incredible attraction for electronic entrepreneurs.
The latest accomplishment of the rebirth; Volkswagen picked Chattanooga for its North American assembly plant and begin producing its first cars this year.
The reasons for rebirth are many. But one appears to be especially critical in Chattanooga and might be equally critical to the future success of all regions. That factor is building the wealth of the region in the plenty years and investing it wisely in the famine years. Most of the initiatives cited above required tapping the accumulated wealth of the Chattanooga region.
Sometimes, this wealth is found in a respected community leader who had the audacity to keep bringing new ideas to the attention of community leaders. Dave Crockett plays this provocateur role with perseverance and personality.
Sometimes, this wealth is found in new leaders who are bringing their talents and resources to the region. Some are totally new, having arrived since the turnaround began last century. Equally importantly, some are returnees, individuals who grew up in Chattanooga, but left to pursue opportunities not then available in the region.
Sometimes, this wealth is found in institutions created to incubate new initiatives, such as the Chattanooga Design Center to assist potential developers, LampPost to support potential entrepreneurs, or the City Office of Sustainability to help assure that new development has the resilience to thrive and prosper.
Sometimes, this wealth is found in buildings and infrastructure. Historic investments were made in office buildings, parks, and municipal utilities that have survived the famine years and can be retrofitted to support new growth.
Maybe, most importantly, the region accumulated considerable financial wealth during the plenty years of the last century when Chattanooga was renowned for its industries, such as the bottling of Coca Cola. The legacy of this wealth now resides in the community’s foundations and they have often been the key funders for new initiatives. Without their seed funding and challenge grants, Chattanooga’s rebirth would have been slowed or even aborted. Together with Federal, state, and local government support, as well as funding from all sectors, Chattanooga has been able to not only launch but sustain new initiatives
The bottom line: Cities and now regions inevitably go through cycles of plenty and famine. It would be great if they had the foresight to anticipate economic and other changes, and built wealth in the good times. However, they often don’t. And these cycles seem to be occurring quicker, with more volatility, over time.
If Chattanooga is illustrative of these cycles, then it suggests a powerful lesson for the future. If a city or region is to survive the famine years in a cycle it needs to be carefully shepherding its wealth in plenty years. But the challenges of doing this appear to be more problematic in the future.
Individuals and families that founded Chattanooga’s past industries created trusts to institutionalize investing in Chattanooga’s future. But the era of founding families is now history. Will the newcomers and returnees start new founding families? Or will they or their children move on to pursue the next opportunity? Will the new plants being built by national and multinational firms, such as Volkswagen, invest in building long term regional wealth? Or will they also move on to pursue the next opportunity? Will national, state, and local governments generate sufficient revenues in the future to invest in the infrastructure and services critical to supporting new entrepreneurs?
Maybe it’s time for leaders and citizens in each region to conduct regional wealth audits to assess what resources are available, or need to be reserved, to assure that the region will not perish in next famine years. Even in the midst of the Great Recession!
“Let them gather all the food and lay up grain under the authority of the Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine. ” Genesis 41:35-36
Bill Dodge is looking for a few good regions that are interested in designing regional charters to strengthen their capacity to address tough common challenges. He is the former Executive Director of the National Association of Regional Councils, author of Regional Excellence, and is writing a new book on regional charters. WilliamRDodge@aol.com