“This is your city, now is our time” was the message that Mayor Andy Berke presented at the Chattanooga Rotary Club meeting Thursday afternoon. In his third month as mayor, he gave an overview of priorities he has established and his vision of things to come.
He told the group that now is the time to remove could and should from the vocabulary concerning Chattanooga. He sees participation all around in contributing to the effort of moving the city forward.
His approach to running the city has been to hire successful business people. He said they may be lacking bureaucratic experience but are all smart, community-minded people. He said he is combining the right people with the right structure, condensing four city departments down to three. These three new departments will focus on the priorities most needed by Chattanooga to deal with safety, youth and the economy.
The Department of Youth and Family Development runs the city’s recreation centers. He told the audience that the rec centers have been under-utilized. The concentration of these facilities will no longer be only recreation, but they will be places used for youth development. There is now a focus at the facilities on helping kids grow and learn, he said. As an example, a proven method of learning to read is being promoted at the rec centers.
The new Department of Transportation will capitalize on infrastructure and will advance smart ideas for all methods of transportation. These ideas will attempt to integrate the use of trains, cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians.
The Department of Economic and Community Development will take the responsibility for creating jobs. Mayor Berke said that since April 19 there have been 917 new jobs created in the city. The budget will allocate the pool of available dollars with the goal of eliminating any waste. The city will now choose to use the resources so that all money is used for an outcome. He said it bothers him that every dollar wasted could have been used for good things to be accomplished. His administration will be relentlessly focused on results, he said.
In the 94 days since taking over the job of Mayor, Mr. Burke related accomplishments that have already taken place. The first cited was the resolution of the problems at Patten Towers. In the last year alone, the Chattanooga Police Department responded to 380 calls and the Fire Department spent over $200,000 sending fire trucks to the building. He said the living environment was disgusting before the most recent fire that sent residents from the entire building to live in an emergency shelter.
The Red Cross and Salvation Army took over and members of his staff were present every day - sometimes 15 hours at a time. The mayor said he prodded owners of the building until they agreed to house the residents in local hotels awaiting the time they could return to their apartments. The building has now been renovated into a completely different kind of place to live. This is symbolic for the way he envisions that city government can lead.
“Our streets are too dangerous” said Mr. Berke, adding that “I hear from the Police Chief way too often.” His plan for public safety will be to bring the successful approach used by other cities to Chattanooga. A management study is being done that will establish the most effective way that officers can be used. “The High Point Initiative” will be the method that officials will use to reduce crime in the city. This concept makes an example of a gang member by going to others and saying clean up your act or we will come after you.
Infrastructure will be improved to take advantage of economic development. As an example, land around Erlanger Hospital will be opened up which will provide areas for medically oriented businesses to locate. This is planned as a partnership with the Lincoln Park neighborhood which it will directly affect.
The fastest Internet in the world is available in Chattanooga, he noted. The energy provided by this asset is emerging and is infectious, he said. Chattanooga is at the front of the curve in this regard.
Visitors that come to Chattanooga usually leave talking about the beauty of the area, the parks, rivers, restaurants and quality of life. These people provide advertisement for the area, but said Mayor Berke, the citizens themselves are the best ambassadors. The best way to recruit businesses is for local residents to tell others of the tremendous opportunities that the city provides.
He ended by saying that there is work to be done, but warned of not letting that distract from where the city is today, adding “This is your city, now is our time.”
When the meeting was opened to questions, Mr. Berke responded to what is planned for the future of the Wheland Foundry. He said that TDOT is currently changing plans that will provide better access to the location off of the Interstate. He also praised the owners of the land because they do not want just any development there. They want the best thing for Chattanooga to be built.
Commenting about the wastewater infrastructure, he said that the city will spend $200 million. Chattanooga is in the midst of upgrading the sewer system to meet federal requirements. The city will likely spend $200 million for this project. The best the city can do is to closely monitor the people performing this work. He also said that Chattanooga is in a strong financial position when it comes to paying for infrastructure projects. The city has in reserve, 21 percent of the operating costs.
Answering a question about the possibility of locating a high school at the U.S. Pipe location, Mr. Berke said that this is an issue for the county, but that the city is seeking a seamless integration and partnership with Hamilton County.
In regular business it was announced that the Rotary Club is participating with UTC in a veteran’s entrepreneurial training program. The club has provided a $5,000 grant for this venture. Rotary members are being asked to participate in the mentoring process.
Volunteers are also being recruited for building a Habitat for Humanity house that the club is sponsoring.
At the meeting next week there will be a demonstration of a 3-D printer.