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By Alissa Walker | 06-08-2012 | 4:25 PM
How Chattanoogans Partied Their Way To A Cleaner, Safer, Richer City
How Chattanoogans Partied Their Way To A Cleaner, Safer, Richer City Image: Flickr user Mircea
In 1969, on the CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite called Chattanooga, Tennessee, the "dirtiest city in America." That blistering statement inspired proud local residents to mobilize and reverse a century of devastating industrial pollution. But around the turn of the millennium, then-teenage community organizer Josh McManus started to notice that the movement was stagnating. "Chattanooga had been on a 30-year track of bringing itself back from a physical perspective," McManus says. "But talent retention was still a huge question mark. People worked hard and hoped their progeny would make it back home, but it rarely happened." So in 2007, with fellow Chattanoogan Helen Johnson, McManus launched CreateHere, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering creative culture and nurturing small businesses in unconventional ways. Notably, the organization threw all-night parties.
Johnson and McManus came onto the city's radar by holding events to connect the local art and technology communities. The formula worked: Where once maybe 100 people would show up to a gallery opening, their parties had huge turnouts of 1,000 attendees. Quickly Johnson and McManus caught the attention of the Lyndhurst Foundation, a local nonprofit driving cultural and economic development, which asked the young pair for their ideas on keeping creatives in the city. CreateHere was funded by the Lyndhurst Foundation as part of their initiative to revitalize Chattanoooga's downtown area.
Part event producer, part business incubator, CreateHere focused its efforts on creative placemaking, using the power of local artists, designers and small business owners to make physical improvements around the the city that can then spur economic development. In a way, it helped to give young, active citizens a greater role in shaping their city, says Peter Murphy, vice chair of the Chattanooga City Council. "I think that the greatest legacy of the CreateHere initiative has been the incorporation of empowered young professionals in the entrepreneurial, and creative culture of our city," he says. "People in their 20s and early 30s have seldom had as good a seat at the table as a city collaborates to achieve quality opportunity for its citizens as they do in Chattanooga."
One of CreateHere's first orders of business was finding out what the community wanted. CreateHere embarked upon an ambitious project to collect input from creative individuals and businesses. Chattanooga Stand, a community visioning initiative, asked residents four questions about the future of Chattanooga, like "Imagine the best possible Chattanooga region. Describe it." Answers ranged from simple to wildly aspirational, and served as a roadmap for CreateHere's work over the next five years.
They collected 26,263 surveys from local residents, an unprecedented outpouring of data from a grassroots movement. "The survey became the world's largest community visioning process," McManus says. "In addition to asking questions, we convened groups to talk about vision meeting action." For example, when through their findings they learned safety was becoming a growing concern, they held open community meetings with local police officers.
CreateHere occupied a storefront at 55 East Main Street, in a building that was once was a brewery. In their efforts to revitalize the city, McManus and Johnson started with their own Southside neighborhood, with a 24-hour festival called MainX24, which brought day-and-night activity to the largely vacant Main Street--one that many citizens believed to be dangerous. After a while, the buzz started to lure other small businesses, galleries, and restaurants to the area. By 2011, the MainX24 Festival drew over 10,000 people to the streets on a budget of just $5,000.
Katherine Currin, whose neighborhood organization the Glass House Collective was incubated through CreateHere, says the power of transforming the Southside neighborhood created a ripple effect throughout the community. "In 2006, Chattanoogans had the broad perception that Main Street and the adjacent Southside residential area was an abandoned and dangerous neighborhood, far removed from its once-animated and vibrant character," she says. "Working with partners from around the city, CreateHere proved that the Southside is not a forgotten neighborhood, and that excitement can return to vacant urban spaces. Through that process, Chattanooga has become a more vibrant and active city." Her project seeks to have a similar effect on the East Chattanooga area.
Through its SpringBoard incubator, an eight-week business planning course that graduated over 500 people, and the MakeWork grant system, CreateHere was able to launch small businesses and fund artists in a supportive environment. CreateHere also gained traction in the community due to its very broad and inclusive curriculum, funding everything from painters to plumbers to artisanal sausage makers. Sheldon Grizzle, an entrepreneur whose tech projects were incubated through CreateHere, thinks there's real value in lumping together restauranteurs, designers and small business owners as part of the creative class. "We didn't see ourselves as economic developers, we saw ourselves as entrepreneurs serving other entrepreneurs," he says. "From fun, techy startups, all the way down to restaurants and retail shops, there's this culture of starting our own thing and stepping out on a limb and taking a chance that has really become more accepted."
One of the great successes of CreateHere was the fact that the initiative was only planned to last five years, a number that McManus came up with after studying leadership and group dynamics in various organizations. This not only provided the team with a solid timeline for all their activities, it also motivated them to be efficient. "If we knew we were working against the clock every day, there was not much time for slacking," says McManus. The planned "supernova" occurred at the end of 2011.
CreateHere's work feathered out into the community, enlivening residents in unexpected places. A typical event fused local art, music, and culture in off-the-beaten path neighborhood, and enabled conversations between different groups of people who didn't have the opportunity to engage previously.
As part of CreateHere's programming, the team also looked outside of the city to share their success stories and learn from people tackling similar problems in other cities. Lectures and video chats featured groups like Broken City Labs in Windsor, California (pictured), Newark mayor Cory Booker, and community redevelopment group the Watts House Project in Los Angeles.
At the end of its five-year run, CreateHere’s programs included the launch of 220 small businesses, relocation of over 30 artists and home sales of nearly $4 million. "We also measured in raw production," says McManus. "We measured the numbers of jobs created and our job creation was far more efficient, with jobs created at $521 per job instead of thousands of dollars." And they saw other signs that they were raising the profile of the city: a Volkswagen plant relocated to the city during their tenure, bringing tens of thousands of jobs.
All together, CreateHere initiated over twenty distinct civic interventions in less than five years. But perhaps the greatest achievement was that during their existence more young, creative Chattanoogans decided to stay in the city--just as McManus and Johnson had originally envisioned. When CreateHere began surveying residents, one of the questions they asked is "What is the likelihood that you will stay in the city for the next three years?" Over the next five years, the number responding 'yes' grew from 33% to 83%.
Now McManus, with a new team at Little Things Lab, is taking his approach to other mid-sized, post-industrial cities. "Our learnings are now being shared with other cities like Detroit, Michigan," he says. "The D:hive just popped up in downtown Detroit and uses many of the lessons of CreateHere."
Image: Flickr user Mircea