By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
The inaugural meeting of the new Board of Directors for The Enterprise Center in Chattanooga will occur later today.
The 22-member public-private group, charged with driving implementation of the “Chattanooga Forward” plan, represents a broad range of interests and every key sector in the community – for-profit, non-profit, institutional, entrepreneurial, and philanthropic.
“If we come up with something that needs to be done, we have the people to make it happen,” according to David Belitz, CEO of the Lupton Company, who has agreed to serve as Interim Chair of the new board.
It’s that “can do” attitude, proven record of accomplishment, and roadmap for the community’s future that attracted our attention.
We sat down recently with Belitz to better understand the new initiative and his role, the latest in a series of leadership positions that he has played in Chattanooga’s entrepreneurial resurgence. In addition to being The Enterprise Center’s Interim Chair, the Knoxville native is also Chair of the CO.LAB Board of Directors and Managing Partner of the Chattanooga Renaissance Fund that is finalizing its second capital raise in just a few years.
Those who know Belitz know that he is a focused individual, driven by goals with specific milestones and measures. He acknowledges that the “Chattanooga Forward” plan is multi-faceted and long-term.
“It’s a 10- to 20-year process to position Chattanooga as ‘The City for Innovation,’” he says. The effort builds on some of the community’s nationally-recognized activities, such as its amazingly fast gigabit network, its emergence as an entrepreneurial hotspot, and its one-of-a-kind “GIGTANK” accelerator.
“The ‘GIG CITY’ brand is very important, but Chattanooga is much more than just that,” Belitz explains. As such, a marketing and communications strategy that enhances an already strong brand for Chattanooga is important.
The plan includes the creation of an Innovation District, an area that Belitz describes as “a place of connection” where people with similar interests can gather and collaborate. This clearly describes CO.LAB and its “GIGTANK,” a key part of the innovation district.
In Belitz’s view, the Innovation District needs to include musicians, artists, and coders. In many respects, there should be as much diversity of participants as possible, to foster the collaboration of people with shared interests in innovation.
Partnerships with national and international enterprises are also important. These would build on relationships already established with organization like the National Science Foundation, Mozilla, U.S. Ignite, and venture funds on the two coasts who discovered Chattanooga in recent years.
A key component of the “Chattanooga Forward” plan is the need to address a national issue called the “digital divide.” Characteristic of the forward thinking that exists in Chattanooga, the report takes a positive view, calling for “digital inclusion.”
Such a goal is a no-brainer for Belitz, given the city’s gigabit network.
“If everyone has access, it opens-up a whole range of innovation opportunities,” he says, citing education as just one example. The challenge is to build a viable business case that enables access for everyone.
Belitz said an ad hoc group of people from organizations like CO.LAB and The Lamp Post Group were meeting to look at the next steps for entrepreneurship in the community when Mayor Andy Berke formed his “Chattanooga Forward” initiative. The two parallel efforts joined forces.
The always candid, clearly focused Belitz described the overall goal as “taking away roadblocks and coordinating efforts to get everyone moving in the same direction for the good of the city.
“The reason we have this movement happening is you can’t ignore the individual pieces and, if you focus on the whole, it will benefit the individual pieces,” he said.
The Enterprise Center’s new Board includes Belitz; Enterprise Center President Ken Hays; Calvin Anderson of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee; Steve Angle, Chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga; Sheila Boyington of Thinking Media; Ben Brown of SwiftWing Ventures; Howard School Principal Zach Brown; Jim Catanzaro, President of Chattanooga State Community College; Sydney Crisp of the Unum Group; Harold Depriest of the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga; Bob Farnsworth of PlayCore; Sheldon Grizzle of Spartan Ventures and formerly of CO.LAB; Ron Harr of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce; Nate Hill of the Chattanooga Library; Rick Hitchcock, a local attorney; Kristina Montague of the Jump Fund; Sarah Morgan of the Benwood Foundation; Keri Randolph of Chattanooga’s Public Education Foundation; Dan Ryan, a local entrepreneur; Rick Smith, Superintendent of Hamilton County Schools; Jack Studor of The Lamp Post Group; Liz Kennedy-Thomas of Hamilton Medical Center; and Kim White of the River City Company.
To review the “Chattanooga Forward” report, click here.