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October 25, 2020 | Tom Ballard

Role of city government was topic of one of the last events in this year’s “Startup Week Chattanooga”

Two individuals with Knoxville ties played key roles during a panel discussion on Friday that focused on the roles local government plays in the success of vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystems. It was one of the last events as the curtain came down later that day on the 2020 edition of “Startup Week Chattanooga.”

The discussion was organized by former Knoxvillian Alex Lavidge of Startup Champs who now lives in Chattanooga, and one of the panelists was Patricia Robledo, Business Liaison for the City of Knoxville. Other panelists included Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke; Paducah, KY Mayor Brandi Harless; Economic Development Consultant Leslie Scott; Monty Bruell, a Chattanooga Entrepreneur and Inventor; and former Mayor Greg Scharff of Palo Alto who recorded a video.

The moderator for the one-hour discussion was Victor Hwang, former Vice President for Entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation and Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Right to Start.

When anyone thinks of vibrant entrepreneurial communities in this country, Palo Alto and the greater Bay Area are always at the top of the list, thanks to being the home to global brands like Google, Tesla and Facebook. In his brief recorded comments, former Mayor Scharff identified several city government actions that contributed to the entrepreneurial success. He described them as fostering great talent, great infrastructure and a great culture. Specific actions involved zoning changes to support incubators and co-working sites, hosting of hackathons and other events, and flexible regulations that enable start-up success.

The discussion that followed, regardless of panel member, kept returning in one way or another to the environment cities can and must establish for entrepreneurs.

  • Scott conducted a study of Chattanooga in 2002 that classified the region as “emergent” and outlined recommendations that, if implemented, would move it into the “established” category. Those recommendations included conducting an inventory of resource providers, holding periodic meet-ups of those providers, focusing on workforce needs, creating a committee of entrepreneurs, and completing an inventory of technology needs and assets.
  • Berke, who came into office more than a decade later, cited the EPB high-speed network and the Innovation District as major strengths of the city and its now established entrepreneurial ecosystem. “I made entrepreneurism a big piece of what we talk about every day,” he said. Later, the Mayor said city leaders should focus on two things – building a great city where people want to live and using their ability to convene, something he said the Innovation District enables. “We have to listen to people,” Berke emphasized.
  • Robledo, whose work helping small businesses started during former Mayor Madeline Rogero’s tenure and has continued under Mayor Indya Kincannon, discussed what she described as the “nuts and bolts of making things happen for businesses . . . creating a culture of helping say ‘yes,’ we want to make it happen.” That included efforts to revise or update zoning laws to permit craft breweries in new areas and a mobile food park.
  • Bruell, who is also one of the announced candidates to succeed term-limited Berke, said that “we are going to have to abandon a field of dreams mentality” and suggested that more focus, perhaps on R&D and joint ventures, would further accelerate the start-up ecosystem. He also talked about an emphasis on more inclusion of minorities and women.
  • Harless, who co-founded a software company named PreventScripts, said she encourages officials in Paducah to think entrepreneurial.

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