Community Voices

What Makes A City Special?

Guest post written by Enoch Elwell

What makes a city special? In Chattanooga, we talk a lot about our beautiful scenery, our super-connected “Gig City,” the waterfront development and the collaborative spirit that is driving the revitalization of our community. But when someone returns to their own hometown after visiting a vibrant, growing and unique city, what story do they use to communicate that message?

In the past few months, I've had the opportunity to visit with leaders of dozens of emerging communities around the country. As we have talked about finding ways to support the growth of their community, I've uncovered a common theme in the way these leaders point to the success of other cities and describe the vision they have for their city– community growth and transformation is invariably described through stories of creative entrepreneurs and the culture they create.


A couple weeks ago, I spent some time with a "connector" from Louisville, who had just returned from a cross-country tour of some of the most interesting cities in the country, including Chattanooga. He spent at least 15 minutes raving about how incredible our city is, going on about the interesting small businesses along Main Street and Frazier Avenue, the beautifully designed Flying Squirrel Bar, the locally focused Main Street Meats and the creative culture these businesses represented. He had heard about Chattanooga's revitalization for years, but when he stood on Main Street and saw the unique and creative businesses, it all became tangible. This ignited his desire to bring this kind of culture to his neighborhood in Louisville.

His story is not unique. The theme that I've begun to see is this: creative entrepreneurs represent the culture of a community, and are key drivers in rapidly changing the perception of a community. When Sheldon Grizzle and I began our work at CreateHere, we spent a lot of time supporting artists, musicians, and other creative entrepreneurs who did not fit the traditional business profile. Through programs like MakeWork (grants for artists) and SpringBoard (business planning course for creative entrepreneurs), we were able to help attract and retain creatives by providing them with resources and community to help them move from part time creative expression to full time culture building (and business launching!). Our philosophy was that if more creatives could move to full time culture building, the perception of our city would change dramatically.

Over the years, countless leaders of emerging communities confirmed the effectiveness of this perception shift by visiting Chattanooga, having heard about our growing creative culture and wanting to replicate it in their community.

ArtWorks in Cincinnati and D:hive in Detroit adopted our model a few years ago to support their creative entrepreneurs, resulting in a strong community of hundreds of creative businesses. After seeing such desire from communities to formally support their creative entrepreneurs, we pulled together a team at The Company Lab to package up the best of what we had learned from supporting over 1500 creative businesses while building the entrepreneurial community. In January of this year, we officially launched CO.STARTERS, and started scaling this “business launching and community building platform” around the country.

Since January, CO.STARTERS has expanded to 24 locations (and counting), supporting over 320 entrepreneurs in the launch of their ventures. Even in these first few months, we are getting reports from leaders who are seeing the beginning of a perception shift in their community as CO.STARTERS cohorts form and creative businesses are being launched and celebrated. With a growing number of tangible culture-building creative businesses to point to, these emerging communities have a way to capture the story of who they are and what they hope to become. Lakeland (Florida) is one of these cities. They are working hard to build a strong community there, which I can best summarize by sharing the example of The Poor Porker. Jarrid and Robyn, a talented young couple, could have lived anywhere, but went back to Lakeland to start their world-class beignet cart business in the community they love.

Has your perception of Chattanooga changed over the years? What creative business(es) do you reference to help describe this shift in culture in Chattanooga?

@EnochElwell is the founder of @CO.STARTERS and cofounder of @TheCompanyLab. Enoch has been involved with startups since his grade school popsicle stand put the local ice cream truck out of business. Driven by a passion to help others, Enoch currently supports emerging startup communities through the nationwide CO.STARTERS platform, helping local leaders take the first steps in accelerating the growth of creative small business communities in their region. 

“The theme that I've begun to see is this: creative entrepreneurs represent the culture of a community, and are key drivers in rapidly changing the perception of a community.”