Source: Times Free Press | Mike Pare | September 17, 2015

chattanoogaA leading scholar of urban trends says Chattanooga is racing ahead of most cities in building its Innovation District and the potential of bolstering the city’s knowledge economy.

“You guys decided to go from zero to 75,” Bruce Katz, a Brookings Institution vice president, said Wednesday during a visit to Chattanooga.

Katz, who has written extensively on innovation districts as co-director of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank’s Metropolitan Policy Program, toured downtown and talked with business and city leaders and entrepreneurs.

“I think what’s happening here is really exciting,” he said in a meeting with Times Free Press reporters and editors. “The culture of the place — it’s large enough to be meaningful economically, but small enough to get your arms around it and collaborate.”

Katz checked out work at the Edney Building at Market and 11th streets, the renovated tower that’s serving as the hub for the downtown district and a place where entrepreneurs, tech-based startups, and business incubators can mesh and create a so-called innovation ecosystem.

Located in the heart of the center city, the 140-acre district is about a quarter-mile walking radius from M.L. King Boulevard and Georgia Avenue and includes public spaces such as Miller Park and Miller Plaza.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said the city’s entrepreneurial economy has made great strides.

“Even in the last two years, the entrepreneurial economy has matured in a way I wouldn’t have predicted,” he said. “When I first ran for office, we were struggling about how can we get new businesses. Now you see them churning all the time.”

Katz said the fledgling Innovation District is already having a marked effect in the city.

“People are saying ‘I want to be part of the Innovation District,”‘ he said.

Katz said Chattanooga is known for its high-speed Internet and quality of life. But, he also cited that smart-grid aspects of the electrical distribution system EPB has built.

“I have a feeling that’s one of the hidden assets about to be discovered in this place,” Katz said.

Government arms such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory as well as global companies will show interest in the smart-grid as they try to figure out how to create power systems that are less vulnerable to storms and other threats.

“You’ve built that system,” Katz said.

While innovation districts usually have sprouted in larger cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and Atlanta where there are top-tier research universities, Chattanooga is creating a variant, the Brookings official said.

“What you do have is a platform for entrepreneurial growth because of high-speed connections and an unbelievable quality of life,” he said.

Ken Hays, who as head of the city’s Enterprise Center is charged with leveraging the city’s digital technology to help build the Innovation District, said the Edney Building will soon house business accelerator The Company Lab on its first floor.

He said a new entrance will be created to the building from Market Street, and other floors are being renovated to house space for startup companies and entrepreneurs. TVA, which had owned the building before selling it to a private developer, also is in three floors of the building.

In addition to utilizing EPB’s expertise, officials mentioned collaborating with the Oak Ridge lab as well as local institutions like the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Coyote Logistics and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and working with venture funds and incubators such as the Lamp Post Group, CoLab and the Hamilton County Business Development Center. Already, startup ventures such as Bellhops, Southtree and Quickcue have added hundreds of jobs in the downtown Innovation District.

“I think you’ve got some really important stuff going on here,” Katz said.