Obama and Chattanooga's economic choo-choo

President Barack Obama addresses the state of the economy during a speech at Knox College on July 24, 2013 in Galesburg, Illinois.

President Obama is slated Tuesday to give a speech about job innovation in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a city once known for industrial decay and rampant pollution.

“It was Walter Cronkite who said, you know, we were the dirtiest city in the nation,” says Corinne Hill, executive director of the Chattanooga Public Library, which archives local history.

That distinction in 1969 still bothers locals. As old industries like steel faded, they left a trail of filthy Superfund sites and lay-offs.

Rust Belt states know how that movie ends. But recently, Tennessee leaders have been able to rewrite the script.

“The community decided, we didn’t want to be known that way,” says Ron Harr, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

Going global helped reverse the region’s industrial decline. Harr points to $4 billion of foreign investment that has created more than 12,000 jobs in the last five years. Volkswagen recently opened a plant and is a big employer. The area is eager for more international firms, which is why the Chamber’s website now offers material in seven languages.

Chattanooga’s sometimes-maligned past actually helped its future. Manufacturers have moved there to take advantage of existing industrial infrastructure and a trained workforce.

“There were substantial numbers of workers who were well equipped to go to work in a factory like Volkswagen,” says economist Matt Murray, associate director of the Center for Business & Economic Research at University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

City leaders are working to keep their momentum. They’re touting Chattanooga’s groundbreaking new fiber optic network, said to offer some of the world’s fastest Internet access to every local home and business. The hope is that it will entice high-tech firms and data centers.

None of this is to say that Chattanooga is magical or somehow immune to larger economic challenges. Unemployment in April was 7.4 percent, only slightly below national figures. And the VW plant recently laid off some workers after Passat sales disappointed.

But overall, the economy there is on the rise. Once a poster child for industrial grime and decay, Chattanooga now offers the kind of turnaround story politicians love to attach themselves to.

Mark Garrison: In the 60s, Chattanooga was not the place you’d expect a politician to talk workforce innovation.

Corinne Hill: It was Walter Cronkite who said, you know, we were the dirtiest city in the nation.

That’s Corinne Hill of the Chattanooga Public Library, which archives local history. Old industries like steel faded, leaving behind only pollution and pink slips. Rust Belt states know how that movie ends. But Tennessee leaders rewrote the script.

Ron Harr: Just in the last five years, we’ve had $4 billion of foreign direct investment here.

Local Chamber of Commerce president Ron Harr says that money has created more than 12,000 jobs. VW and other global firms are in town, so the Chamber’s website is now in seven languages. University of Tennessee economist Matt Murray says Chattanooga’s industrial past helped.

Matt Murray: There were substantial numbers of workers who were well equipped to go to work in a factory like Volkswagen.

Chattanooga wants more jobs and has built one of the fastest broadband networks in the world to draw high-tech firms. I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...