Southeast Tennessee Development

Southeast Tennessee Development
Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy

Executive Summary

The region’s population has reached 800,000 and continues to grow.  Most communities are seeing incomes rise and poverty rates go down.  The total number of jobs in our region grew by 29,115 over the last 5 years and is projected to grow by 29,111 over the next 5 years. There are more annual job openings than in recent years—an indication that workers are switching jobs and seeking better opportunities as confidence in the economy grows.

The relatively high number of annual job openings also reflects an aging workforce.  There are over 257,000 people age 55 or older that are reaching retirement in the 13-county area, which exceeds the national average for a region of this size.  As aging workers transition into retirement, numerous opportunities are opening for younger workers to advance in many professional fields.  However, education data reveals that college graduates are not obtaining degrees in fields at rates needed to replace the aging workforce and meet projected growth, especially in technological and health care professions.  The region has begun to invest more into the preparation of students for these growing occupations through programs such as Future Ready Institutes, the expansion of the Community College system into satellite campuses, and the recently released Chattanooga Climbs 5-year plan.

The opioid and heroin epidemic has become a top concern as it devastates families in urban and rural communities throughout the region.  Efforts to control legal prescriptions are proving successful, driving addicts to buy counterfeit and illegal drugs.  Overdoses and fatalities are at an all-time high, and correctional institutions are overflowing with nonviolent offenders.  This epidemic is expensive for health care providers, treatment centers, law enforcement, and local governments.  Employers are having difficulty finding drug-free employees, leaving many high-paying jobs across the region unfilled.

Finally, the CEDS proposes several bold transportation projects that will improve connectivity and address road congestion and safety hazards throughout the region.  Implementing these projects will enable the safe and efficient movement of goods and people through our region, benefiting residents and industry alike.

Regional Overview

SWOT Analysis


STRONG COMMUNITIES - People here are proud of their communities.  Residents support local businesses and civic organizations, feel comfortable talking to their elected leaders, celebrate their cultural heritage, and stand behind efforts to revitalize their communities.  Although some face education challenges, quality public schools are a point of pride for many communities.  Churches, family values, and neighbors helping neighbors contribute to a strong and supportive social fabric.  People are optimistic about the future of their community and the region.

NATURAL BEAUTY - Our region is beautiful.  The mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, and scenic vistas provide a stunning backdrop for everything that happens in our region.  People want to move here and live here.  These features also attract many visitors and outdoor enthusiasts to our communities, driving the tourism economy.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION - The region is strategically located along major transportation corridors.  With our rail, road, river, and air connections, companies enjoy easy access to the global marketplace.  Over 20 million people live within a 180-mile drive of Chattanooga.  Inside our region, many residents enjoy the quiet refuge of a rural community with all of the amenities and services of a major urban center within a 1-hour drive.

REGIONAL COLLABORATION - Diverse groups and communities have repeatedly come together to tackle the challenges facing our region.  Shared labor sheds, environmental resources, health care systems, and transportation corridors demand we act regionally.  This collaboration and regional sense of spirit is often overlooked as one of our greatest strengths.


WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT - New advanced industries and international companies are creating unprecedented career opportunities for workers in our region.  Education and training initiatives to help older workers obtain the proper skill sets, and encouraging students and young workers to pursue these high-paying fields, will improve residents’ quality of life and standard of living.  Work-based learning programs, LEAP programs, and STEM curricula will introduce and prepare students for today’s careers.

PLACEMAKING - Revitalization efforts that build on existing natural and cultural assets can help communities attract visitors, spur investments on Main Street, attract young families, and reverse population decline.

CAPACITY-BUILDING & LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT - Local officials should know the basics of community & economic development.  Communities also gain capacity when local stakeholders unite around a cohesive vision: this buy-in drives community development initiatives that transcend political terms or any one leader.

INFILL DEVELOPMENT - Incentivizing development in areas with existing infrastructure can help rejuvenate vacant downtowns, reduce sprawl, protect farmland, conserve natural areas, and in the long run, save communities money.

TECHNOLOGY & INNOVATION - Chattanooga’s first-in-the-nation gigabit internet service and Innovation District are attracting tech companies and startups.  Expanding broadband can grow this innovation economy, providing new jobs, business opportunities, and improved health care services.


REGIONAL CONNECTIVITY - The region’s rugged mountains, lakes, and rivers present significant challenges to regional mobility. Consequently, commuters and freight haulers must travel long distances to reach destinations. Alternate routes are few and far between during road closures and major traffic backups.

HEALTH CARE ACCESS - Geographic barriers and low rural population densities present many challenges to sustainable health delivery models. Some counties face severe shortages of primary care physicians, dentists, mental health treatment, and other specialists. A lack of broadband precludes many technological solutions.

BROADBAND - This “highway of the 21st century” is unavailable or unaffordable in much of the region. A lack of broadband inhibits health care delivery, education, economic development, and diminishes quality of life.

DRUGS AND CRIME - Epidemic levels of opioid and heroin abuse are devastating our urban and rural communities. Drug-related deaths and crime and have become commonplace. These societal ills place a heavy, expensive burden on health and emergency services and leave many employers unable to find dependable workers. Criminal records prevent rehabilitated civilians from getting jobs.

POOR PLANNING - Decades of shortsighted planning decisions have resulted in sprawling communities with unmanageable utility networks, strained public services, congested roadways, and poorly connected neighborhoods. Retroactive efforts to address these problems are expensive and take years to implement.

HOUSING - Vacant homes and absentee landlords result in a lack of home maintenance and neighborhood investment. Older adults on fixed incomes must choose between home maintenance or medications. Gentrification has driven low-income residents outside cities to areas where there are few social supports, low-wage service jobs, and no public transit.


AGING INFRASTRUCTURE - Sprawling and aging infrastructure systems are becoming increasingly expensive to maintain. Roads and bridges need repairs. Water and sewer utilities require upgrades and qualified operators. Moratoria hinder economic development, while overflows threaten the region’s ecosystems and tourism industries.

AGING POPULATION - Experienced workers are retiring, leaving businesses without their vast institutional knowledge. An influx of affluent retirees is driving development of natural areas and increasing housing prices in working-class neighborhoods. More and more seniors need help, but funding for services remains stagnant.

WORKFORCE SUCCESSION - Employers require new talent to replace workers who are retiring, while new industries require an overall larger labor force. Many graduates are not interested in manufacturing, health care, or other fields where there is, or will be, a shortage of employees. These jobs are critical to the region’s future.

COST OF DRUG AND OPIOID EPIDEMIC - Overdose victims and drug offenders are devouring the budgets and resources of health departments, emergency responders, and rehabilitation facilities. Comprehensive approaches and regional partnerships are needed to overcome this modern-day public health crisis.

NATURAL DISASTERS - Droughts, fires, tornadoes, flooding—the region faces many challenges beyond our control. Regional preparedness and collaboration builds resilience and can help us bounce back after a disaster.

RESISTANCE TO CHANGE - Local leaders face difficult decisions and are often met with opposition by those who prefer the status quo. Bold initiatives to revitalize a community can be difficult to sell, especially if there is a financial component or the proposal would impact property rights. These tensions deter emerging leaders from stepping forward.



1. COMMUNITY REVITALIZATION - Our region has experienced major transformations over the years. Some towns are distressed with empty main streets. Others grew rapidly with little planning or foresight given to the rampant development. Turning our communities around can spur new investment and result in more quality growth.
• Clean up and redevelop contaminated brownfield sites, vacant properties, and blighted areas so they are available for infill developments featuring mixed commercial and residential uses.
• Convert underutilized downtown boulevards into attractive Main Streets with landscaping, bike lanes, sidewalks, canopied storefronts, and attractive public spaces.
• Create outdoor public spaces such as parks, plazas, and pavilions that can support a variety of activities such as farmer' s markets, outdoor concerts and movies, and other community events.
• Empower planning commissions to pursue a long-term and holistic approach to developing the built environment. Regulations should be aligned to meet the shared vision for the community.

2. HOUSING DEVELOPMENT AND IMPROVEMENT - Much of the region's housing stock is old and deteriorated. Low-income families and seniors on fixed incomes cannot afford essential home maintenance or repair s. High concentrations of rental properties combined with absentee landlords result in little or no investment in many properties. Safe and adequate housing is essential for family stability, educational attainment, and good health.
• Perform repairs and improvements to homes in disrepair with a priority on low-income, disabled, and elderly household s. Educate individuals how to maintain their renovated homes.
• Support ADA accessibility standards in residential dwellings, and complete home modifications that enable seniors to stay in their current homes.
• Develop affordable housing options for senior citizens with varying levels of community supports.
• Update development codes to accommodate a diversity of housing styles and densities. Effective policies can support mixed uses and contemporary housing trends while protecting existing neighborhoods .
• Modify zoning and subdivision regulations to promote entry-level workforce housing.

3. STRONG COMMUNITY INSTITUTIONS AND QUALITY PUBLIC SERVICES - People want to live in communities with reliable services, quality public schools, access to health care, and business-friendly environments. Local governments must balance a variety of community needs and priorities with limited budgets.
• Work with school boards and institutions to ensure high-quality education is provided to all students regardless of their income, background, or ability. Schools should be safe places where students have access to new technologies and experiential learning opportunities that will make them successful in their future careers.
• Improve access to quality and affordable health care throughout the region . Promote primary prevention strategies and healthy built environments as ways to reduce health care needs. In rural communities, technology must be a part of the answer as the region addresses its mental and physical health challenges.
• Perform essential governmental duties well and provide good customer service for residents and businesses. This is accomplished with strong elected leaders and well-trained staff . Local leaders and officials must also understand their role in driving community livability and redevelopment projects.


1. TOURISM DEVELOPMENT - Investment by communities in regional tourism development programs can yield significant economic benefits for local governments and businesses. Professional staff are essential for developing resources and promoting regional tourism across a range of media platforms.
• Support regional tourism development programs to market sites, attractions, and local businesses.
• Create regional guides for special-interest travelers such as rock climbers, historians, and distillery enthusiasts . Install signage and wayfinding devices so visitors can find and identify local attractions.
• Work with chambers of commerce and local businesses to market experiences to travelers and tourists; this may include package deals, promotion of special events, and web-based business development.

2. CREATIVE PLACEMAKING - Communities should celebrate their unique heritage and use this to create a genuine sense of place. This can form the basis for tourism and market campaigns, local festivals, architectural styles, public art, community parks, and other public spaces.
• Adopt an authentic community brand that celebrates local heritage and a community's unique qualities. Update local development regulations to integrate placemaking principles in downtowns and tourism districts.
• Support public art as an economic development and placemaking strategy . Public art enhances community character, improves community aesthetics, and helps tell a community's story. It also attracts young families and higher-income visitors and residents to communities. Public art can include statues, sculptures, murals, alleyway conversions, special installations, and places that allow visitors to capture the "perfect selfie."

3. PROTECTING NATURAL AND HISTORIC TREASURES - The rugged landforms and stunning natural beauty comprise some of the region's most important assets . The mountains, valleys, lakes, and rivers provide beautiful home sites, outdoor recreation opportunities, and natural resource industries that sustain local economies. These must be conserved and protected from reckless exploitation and environmental degradation. In addition, historic buildings and neighborhoods are landmarks in many communities, providing architectural interest and glimpses into the region's past. These should be preserved for future generations.
• Conserve natural areas and protect areas of pristine wilderness from degradation and pollution.
• Mitigate the impacts of development on ecosystems, water bodies, and scenic viewsheds to the extent possible.
• Improve parking and public access to hiking trails, waterfalls, canoe launches, and rock-cmli Support historic preservation projects and initiatives throughout the region.
• Encourage private owners and developers to maintain the integrity and unique qualities of historic buildings.


1. WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT - Advanced industries are the future of American manufacturing . The region' s ability to meet the workforce demand for these industries is currently limited. Training workers and students for careers in these advanced, high-paying industries is essential for the region's economic success.
• Identify skills gaps in the labor force and align workforce development programs to meet employer needs.
• Eliminate the stigma of manufacturing jobs through exploratory career and work-based learning programs.
• Encourage colleges and universities to promote degrees that will help students get good jobs in our region. Retrain and educate displaced workers to they can obtain employment with today 's advanced industries.
• Provide soft skills training to students and young workers to improve their professional and interpersonal skills.

2. HEALTHY LABOR FORCE - A healthy population and workforce consists of healthy individuals. Improving the region' s health problems requires more than money and new hospitals. Better health requires dedication and commitment by individuals: eating healthy, being active, staying drug-free, and preventative care.
• Support initiatives to create a healthy, drug-free workforce by reducing substance and opioid abuse .
• Partner with the TN Dept. of Health on efforts to improve population health and create healthier communities. Encourage schools and employers to implement health improvement programs for students and employees. Develop recreation areas, conduct healthy living workshops, and build exercise spaces in local communities.

3. INFRASTRUCTURE AND SITE DEVELOPMENT - Commercial, industrial, and residential developments require reliable utility services. High-speed broadband is absolutely essential for today 's businesses and industries. The region' s economy is dependent of safe and efficient movement of goods and people.
• Expand affordable high-speed broadband- "the Highway System of the 21st Century "- throughout the region. Improve utility systems with interconnections and system redundancy for provide reliable, uninterrupted service. Get industrial sites certified in order to demonstrate a community's commitment to economic development.
• Prioritize transportation projects that reduce congestion, improve safety, and enhance regional connectivity.

4. ENTREPRENEURS AND BUSINESS STARTUPS - All successful businesses start with an idea. Turning that idea into a sustainable business operation requires experimentation and access to resources that allow it to grow. Supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses should be a priority for our region, especially in rural communities.
• Ensure businesses have access to the capital they need for startup and expansion.
• Establish business incubators in rural communities that give entrepreneurs and innovators the time and resources they need to develop sustainable business models and fine-tune their operations.
• Support small businesses by developing local supply chains and working with local vendors whenever possible.


1. COMMUNITY RESILIENCY - Resiliency means taking proactive steps and preparing local communities and region as a whole to respond, recover, and get back on track in the event of a major manmade or natural disaster. Resilient communities respond better in a crisis, recover more quickly, and often emerge stronger.
• Ensure public officials and emergency personnel have proper training and equipment, and conduct readiness drills. Construct residential structures to meet building codes and locate them outside of floodplain s.
• Adopt plans to ensure essential government services are provided in emergency situations.
• Develop utility interconnections and redundant power supplies to minimize disruptions during droughts or outages.

2. ECONOMIC DIVERSIFICATION - The region's economy remains heavily concentrated in traditional manufacturing, transportation, and logistics. To help insulate the region's workforce and economy from abrupt changes in these industries and the global marketplace, efforts should be taken to grow other industries and train workers for 21st century jobs.
• Increase employment across multiple sectors by attracting new industries outside of manufacturing and logistics. Provide training for dislocated workers to obtain high-paying jobs at advanced industries.
• Support tech startups and entrepreneurial enterprises to help build the region's innovation economy.

3. WORKFORCE SUCCESSION - As the workforce ages and many baby boomers retire, there are concerns about having enough workers to fill these jobs, especially advanced health care and other professional positions. Our region must ensure its workforce is able to provide essential services for our population and meet industry needs.
• Work with educational institutions to highlight careers with projected growth and advancement.
• Consider offering incentives to place professionals and who will provide essential services in rural areas.
• Promote internships, work-based learning programs, and other opportunities to introduce students to needed jobs. Engage retired professionals to volunteer and become involved in their communities.

4. LEADERSHIP AND CIVIC CAPACITY - Communities need strong leaders who are willing to try new ideas while also basing public decisions on sound legal and financial principles. Making progress on local and regional priorities requires engagement by many stakeholders and a commitment to long-term planning and follow-through.
• Educate local leaders on the basics of public finance, planning, and community & economic development.
• Build community capacity to advance projects and initiatives that transcend and one person or political term. One strategy to accomplish this involves restructuring JECDBs to make them more relevant.
• Encourage young citizens to become engaged in local government as a way of developing tomorrow's leaders. Commit to regional collaboration and partnerships as a way of achieving regional solutions for regional problems.