ATHENS — Thirty-three people representing a seven-county area in Southeast Tennessee joined their neighbors from adjacent counties in Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama here Tuesday evening for an informational session dedicated to a long-range regional planning effort.
Bradley, Marion, McMinn, Meigs, Polk, Rhea and Sequatchie counties are included in the long-range regional planning initiative covering 16 counties in the immediate tri-state area.
Thrive 2055 is a 40-year action plan that also includes Bledsoe, Hamilton and Marion counties in Southeast Tennessee; Catoosa, Dade, Murray, Walker and Whitfield in Northwest Georgia; and Jackson and DeKalb counties in Northeast Alabama. The counties share common watersheds, transportation corridors, workforces, natural resources, cultural and heritage assets. The area contains the Tennessee, Hiwassee and Sequatchie River watersheds, four Metropolitan Planning Organizations and three interdependent Municipal Statistical Areas of Dalton, Cleveland and Chattanooga.
Brian Anderson, president and CEO of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce and past chairman of Whitfield County Board of Commissioners, said the need for developing a regional approach arose after Volkswagen committed to locate its assembly plant in Chattanooga.
A contingent of about 100 leaders from government, business, education and other areas traveled to visit with their counterparts in Greenville, S.C., to determine the impact BMW had on that area. Anderson said the overwhelming advice gained from that trip was for adjacent counties to quit competing and cooperate with each other.
He said the 16-member coordinating committee of Thrive 2055 is looking at unemployment, per capita income, education, transportation and other data that is generally not looked at in the context of a region.
“We’ve spent the last six months pulling all of these different sets of data: Census Bureau reports, to health indicators to roads, traffic studies; pulling what was already done, but never looked at collectively and now starting to make some sense of it,” Anderson said.
The meeting was one of a series designed to get the input of average citizens,” Anderson added. “They can express their concerns about a piece of it or all of it. The information and concerns will be collated ...”
He said there would be two more rounds of meetings to further distill the citizen input.
“We will do this rolling, public engagement over the next few months so we can try to hear from as many people as possible,” Anderson said.
He is hopeful the information gained from these meetings and local governments will look upon Thrive 2055 as a resource.
“Let’s say we come out of this whole exercise and find we want more forest land protected, a few more roads and better schools,” Anderson noted. “That’s kind of where it stops unless we get the elected officials at the state level and local level — unless they decide to do something about it, it won’t go anywhere. I think elected officials would like to have information from their electorate.”
He said population growth is a driver behind 2055. In 1990, the 16-county region had a population of approximately 806,000. By 2000, that population had grown to approximately 920,000 and in 2010 the reported population was approximately 1 million. Over a 20-year period, the region grew by 26 percent or 213,000 people.
Anderson pointed out the average annual growth rate for the region during that period was 1.18 percent. In 20 years, Sequatchie County, Murray County and Catoosa County more than doubled their populations; and Hamilton, Whitfield, Bradley, Catoosa, DeKalb, and Murray counties have had the largest numeric increases in population respectively, with 157,000 people or 73 percent of the regional population increase occurring in these six counties.
Most communities within the region have experienced only modest to moderate growth in the last 10 to 15 years (between .6 to 2.4 percent average annual growth). The trend began to shift since the region has attracted more than $4 billion in new business investment since 2008. Major new companies moving into the area include Volkswagen, Wacker Chemie AG, Alstom, and Amazon, which resulted in hundreds of new jobs in just the last four years.
As a result, the region is experiencing strong optimism and is well positioned for accelerated growth on several fronts, Anderson said. Local citizens are excited by the region's increasing opportunities, but there is also a strong desire to preserve the community identity, quality of life and other elements of local flavor that have made the area so attractive, he added.
Continuing, Anderson said accelerated growth is also exacerbating some existing challenges and in some cases creating new ones. The region's rural areas are struggling with double-digit unemployment and gaps between current work force skills and the demands of emerging and retooling industries.
Local governments are fiscally restrained and challenged to meet the existing infrastructure needs at a time when impending growth is likely to demand new infrastructure and public facilities. To make matters worse, growth pressures are occurring in areas that have limited infrastructure support.
In some cases, growth pressures are beginning to threaten the region's critical scenic and environmental resources. There is also an increasing concern about an escalating trend of economic isolation among at-risk families in urban and rural pockets throughout the region as the job market shifts to higher-skilled labor.
Anderson said regional issues such as air quality, stormwater management, preservation of scenic assets and water resource management transcend local political boundaries, but there is currently no regional vision in place to address these challenges.