When Kim White took leadership of downtown economic development nonprofit River City Company, any time she spoke publicly people seemed to expect to hear plans for something monumental.
“We were (in the past) a very quiet company and when we spoke it was because we had this big announcement,” she said.
But as Chattanooga has evolved over the years, so has River City. And with change comes challenges, leaders said.
In recent years, movement of big development projects have slowed. The last major development the company worked on was The Majestic movie theater, White said.
“There are only so many Tennessee Aquariums we can build,” Jim Williamson, vice president of planning and development with River City, said. “We’ve got the parks, the aquarium, ballparks downtown now. Huge projects like that—those don’t come every year. Those are maybe every decade.”
While projects change, the goal to enhance economic development downtown remains.
Although there may come a time in the future when River City works on grand projects, such as the aquarium, again—the company is now trying to maintain the work they’ve already done.
Among other projects, River City leaders are working to market downtown, attract more visitors, keep the area clean, and initiate discussions about the future of specific downtown areas.
“Our role is changing and we are filling in gaps where they are needed,” Lisa Flint, vice president of marketing at River City Company, said.
Retail focus for downtown
River City leaders said a main focus is attracting retail businesses downtown.
“We have a full-time retail recruiter traveling around the region trying to attract cool, unique retailers here,” White said. “It’s still a challenge because retailers aren’t really expanding, but I think it’s getting out there and making sure they are aware.”
River City has had a retail recruiter for about five years. The recruiter is working hard to make sure Chattanooga is on a "short list" of places where businesses want to be, Flint said.
The company has concentrated its efforts primarily on the downtown's central business district, focusing on regional retail and certain chain opportunities, Flint said. They have also worked to draw business to Main Street.
Williamson agreed with White and said that recruiting retail businesses means “being in front of them all the time,” so when they are ready to expand or relocate, they think of Chattanooga.
But attracting retail to occupy some of the 1 million square feet of commercial and retail space available downtown is difficult, even in a good economy, John Healy, managing director with Sperry Van Ness/Elder Healy Commercial, said.
"We are lucky to have River City Company. I am thankful we have them. Chattanooga is a much better place because of River City and the foundations' support."
Managing Director with Sperry Van Ness/Elder Healy Commercial John Healy
“It is especially difficult in a bad economy,” he said.
Retailers look at demographics before deciding on a location and when they look at factors, such as population and income ratios of people in the downtown radius, it doesn’t paint an ideal picture for retail sales, Healy said.
Local retailers understand Chattanooga better and know that downtown pulls from a larger radius, but that may not be apparent to out-of-town retailers, he also said.
“Rent is a small line item at the end of the day for a retailer,” he said. “The big question is how much of the product they could sell.”
Ideal retailers for downtown should be specialty stores, such as outdoor retailer REI or an Apple Store, he said. A couple of big “magnet” stores would help in drawing others, he said.
Another problem is that retailers look at co-tenancy and there isn’t a lot of opportunity for that downtown, he said.
Co-tenancy involves shared property and, in the case of retail, has the potential to draw more customers because they have the opportunity to visit more than one store in the same space.
Although Healy admitted bias toward Warehouse Row because he oversees commercial office space there, he pointed to the location as ideal for retail space and a good example of the type of co-tenancy opportunities that are attractive to retailers.
Kelly Scott, who oversees retail space in Warehouse Row, agreed that additional retailers would be beneficial to downtown.
“Retail brings liveliness and vibrancy and attracts restaurants and tourists,” she said.
She also said she thinks it is getting easier to attract retailers, who for a long time didn’t want to talk about expanding or relocating. Now they seem more open, she said.
River City leaders claim success with early retail recruitment efforts focused on Main Street, where the company successfully drew Niedlovs, Conga Latin Food, The Crash Pad, The Bluegrass Grill and Alleia, Flint said.
Most recently, River City helped place The Honest Pint on Patten Parkway. River City leaders hope the bar can serve as a catalyst for development in that area and will help boost additional recruitment efforts there, Flint said.
Commercial also important
In addition to retail efforts, River City leaders said they have their eyes on recruiting businesses to fill commercial office space, like Healy suggested.
The company's plan is to draw retail tenants to ground floor locations to "activate and animate" sections of downtown that are currently vacant, which leaders hope will attract new businesses.
"Both business and retail adoption are key components in, not only driving residential growth, but also in attracting tourists and local consumers from outlying areas to generate additional revenue in the city’s core," Flint said.
But Healy said he isn’t sure working to attract retailers is the best use of time and money.
Healy said he thinks Chattanooga needs to fill its commercial office space and attract people downtown. Then the retailers will come, he said.
While attracting commercial businesses isn't easy, Healy said it's easier than attracting retail.
“If I have to sell one of the two, I’d much rather sell Chattanooga as a place to operate your business versus Chattanooga as a place to sell your stuff," he said.
What’s next for River City?
MORE RIVER CITY PROJECTS
Chattanooga 3D is a crowd-sourced mapping and visualization platform displaying downtown Chattanooga in a three-dimensional landscape with more than 140 models on Google Earth. In addition to assisting with downtown business recruitment, Chattanooga 3D has also contributed to purposes such as studying the impact of an earthquake and planning future downtown development.
Clean and Green — Presented by River City Company and sponsored by Volkswagen Chattanooga, the Clean and Green program is a volunteer effort to keep downtown beautiful. To date, over 600 volunteers representing 40 downtown businesses have come together for litter cleanup, graffiti removal, etc.
Paint the Town Blue and Gold is an annual community support initiative in partnership with UTC Athletics and facilitated with support by River City Company to provide downtown businesses an opportunity to support the UTC Mocs by displaying UTC promotional materials at their business.
Leaders say the challenge moving forward for River City is the same one the community faces—figuring out what to do next.
Charlie Arant, Tennessee Aquarium President and River City board member, has worked with the company for about 15 years.
“You can’t ever just sit back and say, ‘We did a great job. Let’s just stop,’” he said. “You do that and you’ll get passed by.”
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, a River City board member, said he sees opportunities for more downtown investments, such as restaurants, hotels, motels and retail.
Leaders said River City is working to maximize opportunities to engage new and existing downtown stakeholders, attract jobs and build a competitive business climate, grow the residential population, make downtown more accessible, and better connect the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to downtown.
They company is also in the midst of the Urban Design Challenge, a year-long project that pairs six downtown sites with six architecture/design teams to come up with plans to improve the chosen areas.
“The challenge will energize public discourse about the importance of urban design in our downtown and showcase local talent in architecture and design,” Flint said. “At the end of the year-long series, the collection of concept plans will help inform future discussions about development and improvements downtown.”
The 4th Street Corridor surrounding the Creative Discovery Museum is one of the sites being worked on and the challenge has already helped spur additional planning, Henry Schulson, executive director of the museum, said.
Schulson said the design challenge compliments the museum’s strategic plan, which leaders are working to complete.
“It probably moved up our timeline a little,” he said.
Museum leaders are also considering investing financially in the design challenge, he said.
“The Urban Design Challenge is doing what they wanted to do in terms of spurring business,” he said. “It’s nice because it’s almost from a blue skies perspective. More creative and innovative ideas may be generated.”
All of River City's current projects have one goal in mind, Flint said.
“Simply put, River City Company is working to keep downtown working,” she said.