How Chattanooga Scrubbed Nation's Smoggiest Skies

CHATTANOOGA city councilman Dave Crockett remembers when the dust and smoke in the air of this Tennessee city were so thick people turned on their car headlights at noon and businessmen brought an extra white shirt to work.

That was in the 1960s when federal authorities said Chattanooga had the worst air pollution of any city in the United States.

Today the mid-sized metropolis on the Tennessee River is earning a worldwide reputation as a model for combining environmental initiatives and economic development. The air is clean, riverfront and downtown sections have been renovated, and a fleet of zero-emission electric buses plies the streets.

This week, Chattanooga is trumpeting the metamorphosis as it plays host to President Clinton's Council on Sustainable Development. The city is hoping to position itself as a hub for environmental business and research.

The President's Council - a group of leaders Mr. Clinton appointed in 1993 to formulate US policies that will encourage economic growth, job creation, and environmental protection - is investigating successful initiatives in Chattanooga, Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago that may hold lessons for communities across the country and will give its recommendations to the president next fall.

``The transformation Chattanooga has experienced is really quite extraordinary,'' says Molly Harriss Olson, executive director of the President's Council on Sustainable Development. ``These are people who work together. This is not something we have seen - certainly not at the national level. They are engaging the whole community in an effort to build a sustainable future.''

Public-private partnerships and the involvement of citizens have been key to the city's success, says Mr. Crockett, the great-great-great grandnephew of Tennessee pioneer Davy Crockett. ``It comes from the spirit of people who believe if they have an idea, they can just go ahead and do it.''

Many here say the impetus to turn the city around was triggered in 1969 shortly after it was found to have the nation's dirtiest air. Historically a heavily industrialized railroad center, Chattanooga was and still has a strong manufacturing base. Topography compounded air problems because surrounding mountains have kept much of the pollution from being dispersed.

Political and business leaders took the initiative to clean the air by passing a local air-pollution control ordinance. The city's air quality now ranks among the best of urban areas in the country.

But Chattanooga faced more than air pollution problems.

Like many US cities during the 1960s and '70s, residents and businesses abandoned the downtown. Whole sections of the city were left empty and run-down. As the 1980s approached, the county experienced no growth, and local industries laid off workers. ``There was a feeling that this town wasn't going anywhere,'' says Jim Vaughan Jr., president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

In 1984, the chamber initiated Chattanooga Venture, a privately supported civic-involvement program. Nearly 2,000 residents from prosperous as well as inner-city neighborhoods met over a series of months to draw up goals to be completed by the year 2000.

Many of these have been accomplished: The riverfront, once deserted, now houses a gleaming $45 million freshwater aquarium, and bikeways and pedestrian paths have been built along the river. An old theater has been revitalized. A nonprofit organization is helping to upgrade substandard housing. On the south side of the city, chic restaurants are opening next to dilapidated warehouses. Many other projects, including a new stadium and a museum, are planned.

City officials concede much still needs to be done.

The polluted Chattanooga Creek must be cleaned up. Inner-city neighborhoods near the creek are also littered with abandoned manufacturing sites. Officials acknowledge that any development plan must also address the problem of a poorly educated work force: One-third of all workers lack a high school diploma.

Looking ahead, city officials find off-the-shelf development models inappropriate. ``The traditional form of economic development - the buffalo hunt - focused on recruiting major corporations,'' says William Sudderth, president of RiverValley Partners Inc., the nonprofit group responsible for the area's development.

But what a community like Chattanooga needs to do, Mr. Sudderth says, is target selective businesses in which it has a competitive advantage, but also build on the existing strengths - in this case, its manufacturing base.

City leaders hope to attract environmental businesses, especially those specializing in water-quality systems and electric vehicles. There are also plans to create an environmental conference center and establish an ecological industrial park.

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