May 19, 2023 12:00pm

New downtown high school draws support from Power Poll

Safety plan for Station Street entertainment district gets thumbs-up from almost half of survey respondents

Photo of Chris Vass
Chattanooga, TN Correspondent

A beefed-up security plan for a popular downtown entertainment district earned support from just under half of respondents to a Power Poll this week but just over half had some doubts about its efficacy.

And almost two-thirds of respondents said they support the conversion of an office building downtown into a new public school. As for the best site for a new federal courthouse? A solid half of Power Poll members identified the TVA’s Chattanooga Office Complex, not far from the courthouse’s current site, as their top pick.

In response to months of violence and police calls to Station Street near the Chattanooga Choo Choo, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly put the proverbial hammer down on the clubs and bars and implemented a curfew on them while a more permanent solution could be developed. On May 4, the city announced a 30-day safety plan that calls for added on-duty and off-duty Chattanooga Police Department Officers to work the district. A ban on open containers also remains in place.

We asked, “Do you think the added safety measures will quell violence in the district and reassure the public that socializing in this area is safe?” Forty-eight percent said yes, but more than a third — 37% — said “no” and another 16% were unsure.

Chattanooga City Councilman Darrin Ledford noted that Kelly’s approach seems to be working.

“It will take a collaborative effort by all business owners and the city,” he wrote, for there to be long-term success.

Chris Anderson, senior adviser to the mayor, pointed out that what the city and business owners worked out has been effective so far.

“Four weeks without a single violent incident on Station Street since Mayor Kelly’s executive order and the resulting security agreement among all establishments on the street,” he said.

Time will tell. Kelly, his staff and Chattanooga Police Chief Celeste Murphy and her officers have been adamant that public safety in this high-profile area downtown must be and is a priority. Convincing the 37% and 16% that their plan can work will take time — one week, one weekend at a time.

Turning to public education, Power Poll members indicated support for Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp’s pitch for the county to buy the Golden Gateway office complex from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and convert the building into a new high school.

In answer to the question, “Do you support the county’s purchase of this tract for a new high school?” 59% said “yes” while 30% were unsure and 11% said “no.”

Wamp made public education a major issue and priority in his mayoral campaign last year. The challenges our public school system faces are well documented and widely debated. That, combined with the acute need for an adequately prepared workforce, will force elected officials to make wise decisions about where and when to invest taxpayer money into schools. Wamp has aggressively advocated for a new vocational/tech training high school (a modern iteration of the former Kirkman Technical High School, if you will).

Nothing is wrong with getting creative about using existing facilities for new needs. Here’s Darrin Ledford again:

“Repurposing existing structures to enhance educational opportunities is a win for Hamilton County and the city of Chattanooga,” he wrote. “Makes solid sense.”

Mike Gloekler, head of corporate communications and public relations for McKee Foods, said the city’s “industrial base needs skilled workers desperately.”

McKee, he wrote, has “invested heavily in Bradley County’s PIE [Partnerships in Industry and Education] Center. Why not establish a technical school program right here at home to ensure Chattanooga remains a viable place for industry?”

Hamilton County Commissioner David Sharpe wrote that while he supports a "common-sense approach” to addressing a nearly billion-dollar backlog of capital needs in the school district, he is not a fan of using “taxpayer dollars to fulfill a campaign promise.”

Sure, the county does have a need for a “strong career and technical education school that is built to handle evolving technology, emerging economic trends, and demand from local employers,” he acknowledged.

“Show me a financially responsible plan to do that, while addressing our many other needs across the county, and I will support it,” he said.

Juvenile Court Clerk Gary Behler said he has been a longtime proponent of a top-flight technical/vocational skills school.

But in addition, "there is a strong need for an alternative school for those disrupting HCDE classrooms," he added. "Teachers have long been calling/begging for a workable solution for this continuing problem. Washington Hills is not the solution. Develop a program that will encourage attendees to find a career path and develop the necessary skill-set that will enable them to become productive citizens."

The potential for a new public high school downtown isn't the only talker in recent weeks. Times Free Press Business Editor Dave Flessner recently reported on the U.S. General Services Administration's evaluation of several sites here for a new federal courthouse.

In answer to "Which site do you think would be best for the roughly $200 million building?" about 50% said the TVA Chattanooga Office Complex was their pick while 31% said a tract on Georgia Avenue was ideal. Just 14% favored Hawk Hill, current home of the Chattanooga Lookouts. The baseball team will leave that stadium by 2025 and play in a new facility on South Broad.

Behler and Ledford said the TVA site is best suited for what is expected to be at least a $200 million building, based on the criteria needed.

Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, president/owner of Zach Wamp Consulting, said the TVA office location is ideal.

"Knowing the requirements for the federal building well, the TVA/GSA cooperative effort between Market and Broad streets is the clear choice," he wrote.

We'll have to wait and see what happens next. You can bet advocates for all of these options are making their cases now.

Email Chris Vass, public editor at the Times Free Press, at or

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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