Nearly 700 of Tennessee's top business recruiters and development leaders are gathered in Chattanooga this week for the first time for the annual Governor's Conference on Economic and Community Development.
The two-day event is different from past gatherings in more ways than just its location.
"In the past in a state like ours, economic development discussed at a conference like this was all about recruiting jobs and a rush to manufacturing so people were not unemployed," Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp said Monday during the opening program. "But today, economic development is about creating communities where we all want to live and working on building a better quality of life. That's a huge change."
With unemployment near historic lows and many jobs suited to be done remotely from any location, economic development can be spurred as much by relocating workers as factory relocations, attendees said.
Wamp and Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly told business leaders that Chattanooga is well-positioned for the new era.
Kelly said during the pandemic, many workers decided to move to Chattanooga to take advantage of the region's outdoor appeal, mild climate and lower cost of living.
Recent rankings among the 50 U.S. states:
— Tennessee ranked No. 3 in the 2023 top states for doing business ranking by Area Development magazine.
— The financial television network CNBC ranked Tennessee No. 3 in its 16th annual America's Top States for Business ranking.
— Business Facilities magazine ranked Tennessee No. 2 for electric vehicle industry investment, No. 4 for top states in the automotive industry and No. 5 for best business climate.
— Chief Executive magazine ranked Tennessee the third-best state for business.
— Site Selection magazine last year ranked Tennessee No. 1 in its survey of executives on business climate.
Source: Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development
Chattanooga has also benefited by offering the nation's first citywide high-speed broadband by EPB, which estimates its gigabit-per-second internet speed across all of EPB's territory has helped spur more than $2.7 billion of economic investment and savings.
"Broadband is critical for economic development today, and that's why we are putting more resources into making sure that we have broadband for all areas of our state," Stuart McWhorter, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, said in an interview Monday.
McWhorter said he was impressed with Chattanooga's ongoing efforts to revitalize Chattanooga's Westside using the former Combustion Engineering plant site and the city's oldest public housing facility. Kelly said the site of the aging College Hill Courts public housing project and the shuttered Combustion plant, once one of Chattanooga's biggest employers, showed the lack of investment and growth in Chattanooga for many years in the past.
But Kelly said he is optimistic the Westside and The Bend redevelopment along the riverfront will be revitalized with potentially more than $1 billion of new investments. The city and county set up a special taxing zone and will submit a request later this year for a $50 million Choice Neighborhood grant from the federal government to help pay for the redevelopment.
"This gives us the chance to partner on an incredible opportunity to not only create a whole new neighborhood of commercial, housing and industrial development, but a way to fund the rebuilding of our public housing in that area," Kelly said.
Kelly said the Westside is a great example of how the city is working to recruit and promote new business in a way that helps Chattanogans of all incomes.
Wamp said the tax district created for The Bend should also help fund the creation of a downtown vocational school, which should provide more well-paying jobs for citizens while enticing new industry to locate in Chattanooga.
McWhorter said business recruitment has remained relatively brisk despite the economic slowdown this year.
Businesses may be moving slower on new projects since interest rates have been increased, but McWhorter called such delays "a short-term downturn" that shouldn't hurt Tennessee's prospects for long-term growth above the U.S. average.