Chattanooga, Tenn. was a big smear of nothing in the vast Southern wasteland: fourth-largest municipality in the state, with about 175,000 people, chronically forgotten behind bigger names like Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville. Industrial smog settled on the city, and people began to leave — Chattanooga’s population dropped by 10 percent in the 1980s. It got so that no one even remembered the song anymore.
(Note to Ginsburg: It’s called “The Chattanooga Choo Choo.”)
But they got in the game by deciding to develop the downtown waterfront around 2000, playing up a key asset, and attracting a Volkswagen assembly plant in 2008 — not to mention an Altoids factory, the only one in the world, in 2005.
But arguably the biggest move was made in 2010, when city officials realized there was one thing they could offer that no one else in the South would — not could, mind you, but would.
And so the city of Chattanooga built a fiber-optic network with what they claim is the fastest download speed in the Western Hemisphere — which is about 1/3 the speed of the South Korean internet, but still. They created a city-run entity to monitor it as a utility, and then made it available to everybody for about $70 a month, and about a third of that for low-income residents.
As a result, unemployment has halved in the city, with most of the jobs coming from the VW plant, the technology sector and entrepreneurial startups. It’s further advanced an organic downtown renaissance, too, elevated by raising wages. And people have started moving back — it’s regained all of the numbers lost in the last 30 years.
There’s an obvious comparison to all three cities of the Triad, each of which seems plotted at some point along the Chattanooga continuum. And I think widespread, high-speed, fiber-optic internet access at subsidized government rates could push one of them to the tipping point.
Can it really be as simple as that?
Perhaps. No modern business can function without the utility the internet provides: email, web sales, cloud-based software and communications tools. And as we’ve seen, cities that offer this service give themselves a serious edge.