February 22, 2014 11:39:50 PM
In 1969, Walter Cronkite reported on a CBS broadcast that an annual Environmental Protection Agency study found Chattanooga, Tenn., to be the dirtiest city in America.
Through public-private partnerships and investments, as well as the vision of local architects and developers, the fourth largest city in Tennessee has been revitalized and its image transformed. The city boasts a population of over 170,000, nearly seven times that of Columbus. But Columbus city officials and representatives who teamed together last year to explore revitalizing The Island see similarities.
Both places have revitalized former over-water thoroughfares into pedestrian bridges. Chattanooga's Walnut Street Bridge connects downtown and the Northshore, with its eclectic collection of shops, restaurants and a riverside park. The Tennessee-Tombigbee (Old Highway 82) bridge completed last year connects downtown Columbus to The Island.
Another is less noticeable on the surface, but the Tennessee city formerly had numerous blighted areas that have been redeveloped. City Planner Christina Berry sees blighted areas on a regular basis in Columbus -- she worked with a consultant to identify more than 800 such parcels -- and believes they have the potential to turn into assets.
Berry and Island committee members visited Chattanooga last week on their own dime and spoke with some of the major players in the city's revitalization. Berry said her focus was on the inner workings of what made revitalization projects work in Chattanooga more than the projects themselves.
"As a planner, I have an idea of what I would like to see or how I think Columbus should be developed. Of course Chattanooga is different, but Columbus shares some things with Chattanooga as far as having areas you want to see redeveloped," she said. "As far as ideas that we could do this here or do this there...for me, I was more interested in how the put their projects together. Even more than that, the private side and how they put together their public-private partnerships to make those projects happen."
One of the building blocks goes beyond the redeveloping The Island or other underutilized areas, she said.
"I think Columbus should develop as a city with great neighborhoods," Berry said. "I think neighborhoods are the foundation for anything you want to do. People want to live in a place where there's a great quality of life and they feel safe and can enjoy recreation and all the things you would do if you were to go someplace else. That's the Columbus I see."
Former councilman and Main Street/Downtown representative Jay Jordan was also on hand for the two-day trip. He was most impressed with the efforts of River City Community, a private, non-profit redevelopment authority established and capitalized with $12 million from local foundations and financial institutions in the 1980s that works with city and county leaders and private investors to develop real estate projects in downtown Chattanooga.
"While Columbus is obviously not as large as Chattanooga or the area there, we've got a lot of the same attributes physically that they have," Jordan said. "We've got the Riverwalk, we've got the bridge and we have an area on the other side of the bridge that's largely undeveloped, which is what they had at the time," Jordan said. "There's a lot of potential...The elements are there in Columbus to do something along the same lines that Chattanooga has in redeveloping their downtown."
In order to replicate what the city has done on a smaller scale -- particularly on The Island -- Jordan said philanthropic contribution is needed, as well as a master plan that can help manage growth.
"I think at this point the plan is you've got to determine what you want to happen there," he said. "The city has acquired some acreage from the county and that's right on the river. It's right there on the bridge. It's definitely an important piece of property to have, but I don't think you develop The Island around one piece of property. You've got to look at the whole thing."
Stuart Phillips, whose family owns land on The Island, also attended and will continue to be a member on the committee as a landowner representative. Phillips said he was impressed with what Chattanooga had to offer and the teamwork between entities to revitalize the area.
"The reason I went was to see what the rest of the group has in mind and see what's going on," Phillips said. "We will be affected if things continue to progress and I want to be involved with that. My family owns property out here and if (the committee) is talking about doing things, I want to know what's going on to be in the game and not on the sidelines.
"It's pretty incredible what they've done (in Chattanooga)," Phillips added. "It took everyone getting on board and being on the same page about what they wanted. They did it, and they're still doing it now. I think everybody who went on this trip realizes they've got to have a plan with everybody on the same page on what can happen on The Island."
Councilman and Island committee member Kabir Karriem said the trip was "priceless" because of the insight gained from Chattanooga dignitaries and stakeholders.
"There's been a lot of naysayers about Columbus, but with the right approach and the right continuity between different entities in the city, I think we can duplicate some things that we saw," Karriem said. "Nothing is going to happen overnight. It's going to take a team effort and we're going to have to roll our sleeves up and do the hard work. It's a matter of pooling our resources.
"(Chattanooga) had all the stars lined up for them," Karriem added. "I think Columbus is at the crossroads for that to happen as well."
Columbus Mayor Robert Smith, former Federal Programs Director George Irby, Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Nancy Carpenter, Columbus Air Force Base Public Affairs Chief Sonic Johnson, engineer and consultant Kevin Stafford and Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority Director Roger Short also attended the trip.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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