Before it became the country’s first “gig city,” Chattanooga, Tenn., moved at a languid pace — if it moved at all.
“In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Chattanooga was a dying city of industrial companies leaving,” said Mayor Tim Kelly, a resident who was reluctant to come home after attending Columbia University in New York. “But I felt a sense of obligation [a family auto business in town]. At the time, Chattanooga did not have a buzz.”
And then the Tennessee Aquarium happened.
Opened in 1992, the popular attraction on the banks of the Tennessee River and home to 12,000 animals kick-started an implausible renaissance: Billions of dollars in investments, a makeover of the downtown area, and a boom in hotels to this day.
Now Tennessee’s fourth-largest city is hurtling forward with a 25-gig network for everyone and a major new business push behind so-called quantum networking. On Wednesday, The Company Lab, a non-profit accelerator for early-stage startups unveiled a program to fund and advise six startups working on new approaches to sustainable mobility.
Former America Online CEO Steve Case, author of “The Rise of the Rest: How Entrepreneurs in Surprising Places are Building the New American Dream,” attended the event. Case has called the city “freight alley” for its proximity to a major river, railroad system and interstate freeways.
Meanwhile, developers of telecommunications company EPB’s new quantum network that debuts in July hope the network and related efforts will put Chattanooga on the leading edge of the next generation of cybersecurity, computing and other technologies.
“This is the kind of initiative that 20 years from now could fundamentally increase the median income of our entire community,” EPB President David Wade said in an interview.
“Quantum is the next chapter, much like in the beginning,” added Kelly, who is also part-owner of a local soccer team and brewery. “We do not know where it is going to go, but surely VC and research will accrue here.”
America’s first Gig City
The majestic Tennessee River carves through Chattanooga, the state’s fourth-most-populous city (with 183,095 residents) and America’s first Gig City. Indeed, in 2010 it became the first metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere to offer 1-gigabit-per-second fiber internet service to all residents and businesses. The speed ratcheted up to 25 gigabits per second this year.
The combination of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the legendary electric utility corporation created in 1933 as part of the New Deal, and EPB, one of the nation’s leading municipal-owned utilities, has greatly contributed to affordable rates of blur-fast technology. Meanwhile, EPD’s Smart Grid Technology has reduced carbon emissions by 4.7 million tons and greatly reduced power outages.
Just as important is the city’s location: It is at the nexus of Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala. — and is within a one-day truck drive of half the U.S. population.
“We were the Rust Belt of the South, to iron ore and steel, but it was dying away,” said Charles Wood. CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. “The economic shift to white-collar industries changed with the aquarium opening in 1992. From 1992 to 2012, $1 billion was invested in city. Since then, it has been $2 billion.”
Today, in addition to the nation’s preeminent gig network and a fledgling quantum network, the city is a tourism hotbed and home to “Battery Belt” with the presence of major employers Volkswagen
Nissan Motor Co.
and Ford Motor Co.
as well as Novonix, whose technology turns sludge into synthetic graphite — “It is the Manhattan project for battery life,” Kelly said.
At the nearby University of Tennessee Chattanooga (UTC) campus, they’re developing smart-city applications such as a 100-intersection urban testbed for autonomous vehicles over the next few years. “We could greatly influence future transportation,” said Mina Sartipi, founding director of the Center for Urban Informatics and Progress at UTC.
So much, so fast. But who is to manage it all?
“It comes down to growth management,” said Kelly, a leading proponent in the region for a corridor track to Atlanta and expansion of the airport. “It reminds me of Austin. We have the Goldilocks problem of keeping this like Austin 20-30 years ago, and not what Austin has become” as a major tech hub coping with unbridled growth.
Chattanooga transplants from two of the world’s biggest tech hubs can vouch for the appeal of a balanced work-home lifestyle.
“The city is growing smartly,” said Ryan Lusk, CEO of 3-D-printed fabrication technology company Branch Technology. He left New York after several years to return to Tennessee in 2012.
Rachel Pohl, senior manager at Unity Software Inc.
relocated to Chattanooga in fall 2021 after leaving the San Francisco Bay Area in October 2020. For a while, she and her husband embarked on a Magical Mystery Tour of the U.S. with stops at AirBnBs
in Asheville, N.C., Santa Fe, N.M., Charleston, S.C., Bozeman, Mont., Nashville, and Bentonville, Ark. Ultimately, they chose Chattanooga over Durham, N.C.
“It is a town where you can make an impact,” Pohl said.