Friday, October 5, 2012

Quality of Urban Life

LeTourneau University sponsored a visit by Longview civic leaders to Chattanooga, Tenn., early this week. It was my pleasure to lead the group, and we were well represented on the trip with Bob Wharton and former Chattanooga residents Phil and Judy Coyle joining me. Why visit Chattanooga?

In a 1969 CBS evening news broadcast, famed newsman Walter Cronkite described Chattanooga as the "dirtiest city in America." The city was one of America's first industrial centers, but years of economic changes and accumulating water and air pollution had left the city a real mess -- especially in its downtown riverfront center. In the decades since Cronkite's report, Chattanooga has been one of America's great turn-around stories. The Chattanooga of today is beautiful with a redeveloped vibrant downtown, a beautiful river park, and a citizenry that obviously has great pride in their hometown.

When Volkswagen chose Chattanooga for its new auto assembly facility in 2008, it was because America's dirtiest city had transformed itself into one of America's most livable cities. It was the quality of life that attracted VW, but thousands of others have made individual decisions to move to Chattanooga. Our delegation heard the story of a young marketing executive from Atlanta who had visited Chattanooga as a tourist 12 years ago. He and his wife were so impressed, they made the choice to relocate and raise their young family in the city. It wasn't a job that brought him to Chattanooga; it was a decision to seek quality of life.

Longview's next several decades will be a time of redevelopment. Our city can't just keep expanding into unincorporated pastures. Instead, we must learn to redevelop many of the neglected neighborhoods within our city limits. Economic redevelopment is an opportunity in nearly all corners of our community and certainly in the South Longview neighborhoods that LETU calls home. Chattanooga demonstrates that with focus and patient, diligent work, even the dirtiest city in America can be redeemed.

There are many specific things we learned on our visit -- too many to list here. In summary, I was reminded that change begins with vision for a better community, one that details the quality of life we want for our children and grandchildren.  From vision comes a comprehensive master plan that directs the city's transportation, parks, utilities, land use and other essential programs into one unified direction toward the future we desire. With the master plan as its guide, Chattanooga demonstrated the need for a city to use creativity and collaboration to implement the plan, one project at a time, one neighborhood at a time, with realism that change takes time.

I have a vision of an attractive and business-filled entry way that connects our campus to Estes Parkway, I-20, and the airport beyond. I can imagine a comprehensive city bike and walking trail system that connects us to the rest of the community and a pedestrian and bike friendly path that would connect LETU to a redeveloped "Junction" neighborhood and then beyond to downtown.  If that vision is shared by others, then the next step would be the development of a master plan to guide change for years to come.