(EDITOR’S NOTE: Earlier this week, officials in Chattanooga unveiled an updated vision and plan for the city’s Innovation District. Today, we feature a guest column by Marcus Shaw, Chief Executive Officer of CO.LAB, describing the significance of Tuesday’s announcement.)
This week, Chattanooga’s start-up community was part of a public gathering at The Edney Innovation Center to learn about the next stage of our Innovation District.
The Enterprise Center shared an impressive framework for the Innovation District to a diverse room of leaders and community members from the private and public sectors. In addition to community members, audience members included start-up founders, nonprofit leaders, and business leaders. The group also included our city and county leadership, as well as leaders from higher education.
In the framework plan presented by the Enterprise Center, there are four main strategies designed to enhance the Innovation District:
- Expand public engagement to support diversity and inclusion;
- Improve the urban design qualities;
- Enhance innovation ecosystem supports; and
- Animate the area by building and redeveloping physical assets.
Diversity and inclusion is a pillar value for CO.LAB. We believe that a collective sense of belonging is key to generating innovation from all parts of the community. That is why we are excited to see multiple initiatives in the Innovation District plan to support diversity and inclusion. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, known to many as the “Big 9,” is a key element of the Innovation District, connecting business, civic, academic, and cultural foundations of our community. The Innovation District plan calls for development of mixed-income housing facilitating the ability for community members from all walks of life to participate in the district.
Recognition of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center and its community significance is a particularly powerful element of the plan. Working with leadership of the Bessie Smith Center, the Enterprise Center shared a vision of an enhanced community space that will highlight the cultural legacy of African-Americans in the city, as well as increase economic activity for the MLK neighborhood. Intentional inclusivity throughout the planning process is an inspirational example how our city can embrace and build upon diversity.
There are exciting waves being made to also bring the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga more into the fold of the Innovation District. In the works is the development of the Mapp building and the surrounding block, which is just a few blocks from The Edney.
Development of the Mapp building and its surrounding block into a mixed-use space for the whole community will create more organic interaction between the university and other institutions in the Innovation District. This is a significant move in the right direction from our perspective at CO.LAB, as we believe exposing students to increased entrepreneurial and local business activity will complement their academic experience. This creates a pipeline of talented future founders and future leaders with the confidence, skills, and relationships to lead Chattanooga forward.
There are a number of other incredible efforts being made to improve what has already been built in the Innovation District. Right now from our building, we can see Miller Park being rebuilt and reimagined as a gathering place for everyone in the district, which we see as a continuation of the relationship between placemaking and innovation that has helped develop Chattanooga to what it is today. We see infrastructure changes happening rapidly on our nearby streets to quite literally pave the way for a denser population in this area. There are older buildings, like the Krystal and Tallan buildings, in the works of being energized and programmed to further support our innovation economy.
We have seen significant validation in the Innovation District’s success thus far. In 2015, notable entrepreneur and speaker Gary Vaynerchuk announced that Chattanooga was the next site of his social media agency, VaynerMedia. The following year, Oak Ridge National Laboratory announced they would be expanding and building an office in the EPB building.
Last month, Brookings Institute Centennial Scholar and author of The New Localism, Bruce Katz, visited Chattanooga and held up our Innovation District as a model for other mid-sized cities across the country to follow. He specifically addressed our successful public-private partnerships as an example of how cities can generate growth through leveraging local assets.
Most recently, we were excited to announce that Chattanooga had been selected as one of five cities on the upcoming Rise of the Rest road tour with Steve Case. This honor and incredible opportunity is truly validation that Chattanooga is on attractive and sustainable growth path, and others are taking notice.
It’s been a journey to get to this point. None of it would have been possible without the strong support and willingness from both our public and private sectors. CO.LAB sits in the Edney Innovation Center at the heart of the Innovation District. As we continue to grow entrepreneurship in the region, I am excited and encouraged by the Innovation District plan and view its collaborative framework as a catalyst for the future of economic growth in our region.