Why Not Chattanooga?

Benwood is pleased to announce the election of Wade Hinton to our Board of Trustees. Along with our other five trustees, Wade will be tasked with overseeing the direction and investments that the foundation makes in the community. Given his strong commitment to Chattanooga, his leadership and his experience, we are excited to have him join Benwood’s team. You can read his thoughts on Chattanooga’s progress – today and tomorrow – below.

This past weekend, I traveled to New York City to reconnect with old friends and make new ones.  While there, I was asked the same question I always get from people not familiar with my hometown – why in the world are you in Chattanooga?? About that time, I quickly go in to sales mode, listing the number of great assets Chattanooga has to offer. I follow the list with a telling of the Chattanooga Renaissance and how we have transformed ourselves into “Gig City”, home of the fastest and least expensive Gigabit internet in the Western Hemisphere. This trifecta is often enough to quiet the naysayers, but on occasion, I get tougher questions about diversity and the social dynamics of class.  My responses to those questions are not as confident and enthusiastic.  Although my hometown has grown leaps and bounds over the past decades, much work is left to ensure that all Chattanoogans are active participants and recipients of the city’s success. 

When I'm home in Chattanooga, I frequently hear this question - why can't we be more like ______________? (Fill in the blank with your favorite, or most recently visited, city.) 

One city, often coveted by Chattanoogans, is Austin, Texas. We all know the great promise that being more like Austin offers – the innovation and technology, the energy, and, of course, the coolness factor.  Austin has seen tremendous growth in its economy due in part to its ability to attract young professionals and brand itself as one of the most innovative places in the country.  What has not been discussed as often, is the declining number of African-Americans in Austin as reported in a recent study conducted by the other UT – the University of Texas at Austin.  While the most recent census showed that Austin saw a total population growth of 20%, it is the only city with more than 10% growth that also experienced a decline in its African-American population. 

Another city often used to “fill in the blank” is our neighbor to the south - Atlanta.  In many ways, it has been the standard-bearer when it comes to inclusion.  In Atlanta, it is not an anomaly to see either people of color or women in leadership roles in both the public and private sector.  Almost two decades ago, Atlanta welcomed the world to its doorstep when it hosted the 1996 Olympic Games - and the world kept coming.  But, even as Atlanta was welcoming all and promoting diversity in an intentional and deliberate way, the city did not properly prepare for the explosive population growth that occurred since the Olympic Games.  Because of the lack of preparation, Atlanta traffic is now the seventh worst in the nation and its two most recent mayors have worked tirelessly to address various infrastructure concerns.

All of these inquiries leads ME to ask my own question - why do we have to be more like other cities?  Why can’t we simply be the city we dream about - while ensuring it is a shared experience for all of Chattanooga?  It has been reported throughout the world that Chattanooga is a city on the rise, but what steps can we take to ensure that all Chattanoogans rise with it?  Austin is a great model.  But don’t we want the innovation, the technology, and the young talent - without making groups feel so excluded from success that they flee for another, more inclusive city?  Atlanta is also a great model.  But don’t we want to promote inclusion in both the private and public sector, to see more women and people of color in leadership roles, and develop the diverse talent we have here at home, while still promoting smart visioning and an achievable growth plan? 

I am filled with hope when I see others in Chattanooga like Mayor Andy Berke, the Urban League, and the Benwood Foundation asking these exact same questions.  We know of the good work Mayor Berke and the City Council are doing and I would encourage everyone to become familiar with the great accomplishments of the Urban League and the Benwood Foundation, which has recently adopted a new strategic plan. I have no doubt the priority areas of Benwood’s plan will go a long way to finding solutions to these questions raised. 

For years, Benwood and its leadership have done the work and made the investments in initiatives to help move the city forward. This is why I am both honored and excited to join Benwood on this journey as its newest trustee.  I cannot think of a better opportunity to help address these issues than partnering with an organization focused on culture, talent, competitive advantage, and place. 

My hope is simple – to not be the next Austin or Atlanta, but to be the best Chattanooga we can be: a city for everyone, ensuring that all Chattanoogans in all neighborhoods are a part of the growth and success.  My challenge is just as simple – for someone to tell me why we cannot make this hope real.  Why not Chattanooga?  Why not be the city that enthusiastically boasts about our assets and innovation, while at the same time trumpeting our record on inclusion for all?  Over the next few years, I look forward to having more of these conversations with the community and am thankful my hometown is a place where hope still lives. 

Wade Hinton is a native of Chattanooga and currently serves as City Attorney and Chief Legal Officer for the City of Chattanooga. As an active community leader, Wade serves on the board of a number of community organizations and has worked on dozens of projects. He is a newly elected member of the Board of Trustees for the Benwood Foundation. 

“My hope is simple – to not be the next Austin or Atlanta, but to be the best Chattanooga we can be...”