June 23, 2023 12:00pm

TIF plan for The Bend will benefit Chattanooga

Power Poll survey shows support for plans to develop neglected area of downtown

Photo of Chris Vass
Chattanooga, TN Correspondent

Recent headlines and the latest Power Poll survey reflect a building wave of momentum for what city and county leaders and private developers have planned for more than 300 under-utilized riverfront acres of the Westside: massive investment, development of commercial space for businesses employing thousands of people, new housing and park space.

Chattanooga City Council members and Hamilton County commissioners have been briefed on plans to use tax increment financing for the redevelopment of the former Alstom plant site — prime waterfront property now known as The Bend. Adjacent to The Bend is another up-and-coming project (Westside Evolves) — if the money follows — for an overhaul of the city’s oldest public housing development, College Hill Courts.

Some council members are more reserved in their reaction to the projects, and there are plenty of questions yet to be answered. The TIF agreement for The Bend will be hashed out in detail in coming weeks with votes on the proposal expected later this summer.

Sensitivity around use of TIFs to spur development has been acute in recent months after a TIF was pitched — and approved — for an expansive area around the home of a new Chattanooga Lookouts Stadium on the former U.S. Pipe and Wheland Foundry sites on South Broad Street.

Power Poll members, surveyed this week, however, said they support the TIF for The Bend, which has been worked on by Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp, and principals of Urban Story Ventures. Asked about the scope of the tax break, nearly three-fourths – 75% — said it was “about right.” Another 23% said the deal was “too generous,” while 4% said it was not “robust enough.”

And just over half of survey respondents are on board with the city and county pursuing these types of economic development tools.

Asked, “Do you think city and county leaders are relying too heavily on TIF agreements?” 52% said “no.” A quarter of respondents are more skittish, saying “yes” and another 23% were not sure.

But Charles Wood, who now heads the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, reminds us that Chattanooga, when compared to similar cities, hasn’t fully tapped the potential of TIFs.

“Tax Increment Financing has been highly under utilized in Chattanooga compared with other communities across the country,” he wrote.

“Knoxville, as an example, has 30 active TIFs. If TIFs are used to accomplish community-wide goals such as funding affordable housing, education, job creation and infrastructure while generating additional general fund revenues for the city and county, then utilizing TIFs is an obvious solution for solving some of Chattanooga’s biggest challenges.”

One commenter, Dr. Rob Liddell, executive director of Center for Career and Leadership Development at UTC, said TIF financing can be attractive as it draws on future incremental tax revenues generated by the development to support infrastructure, etc.

“The concerns, however, include overly large TIF districts and potential impacts to the city’s credit worthiness,” he cautioned. “I believe that a focused project whose scope and timeline have solicited and incorporated community input will yield great gains for our city.”

Summer Moore, director of audience growth for American City Business Journals, pointed to the fact that the Westside has needed attention for years.

“It’s exciting to see that part of the city start to get real movement,” she wrote. “As long as leadership follows through with their promises to the current community, and works closely with advocates, I would consider all of this a good thing.”

Her comments were echoed by Reflection Riding President Mark McKnight, who noted the neglected nature of the area.

“We already know that a largely empty Westside doesn’t offer much opportunity for anyone,” he wrote. “If a TIF deal helps spur the redevelopment of this area, and provides for some affordable housing in the mix, that seems like a best case outcome for the entire city.”

McKnight credited the “thoughtful planning” completed by the developers as well as the Chattanooga Housing Authority and Chattanooga Design Studio. Their efforts, he noted “should help guide this district toward a more equitable revitalization.”

Zach Wamp, owner and president of Zach Wamp Consulting, urged elected leaders to monitor tax break agreements to ensure their benefit.

“If there’s no enforcement or claw back so the developers can be held accountable, abuse can set in,” he wrote. “Government leaders must be vigilant and educate themselves extensively on the details.”

And into the world of sports, and since Chattanooga has tons of golf fanatics, I was curious about the reaction to the stunning PGA-LIV Golf merger announcement earlier this month.

Asked, “Do you think the recently announced (and jaw-dropping) merger proposed between the PGA and LIV Golf will benefit the sport?,” almost three fourths — 71% — said “no” and another 29% said “yes.”

Obviously, time will tell on this one.

Email Chris Vass, public editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, at cvass@timesfreepress.com or cvass@powerpoll.com.

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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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