In the early 1980's, Chattanooga, Tennessee, was a city in despair. Local industry had closed up shop, leaving behind people without jobs and with polluted air and water. A few wealthy families were thought to run the town and with a city council elected at large, most residents felt like there was nothing they could do to change things.
But, as is often the case, a few people refused to give up hope. They opened a storefront office downtown and called themselves Chattanooga Venture. Instead of hiring experts to draw up plans, they went out into the community neighborhoods and invited rich and poor alike to join together in creating a vision for the future of their city.
In three rounds of neighborhood meetings, residents first brainstormed lists of what they wanted for the future of Chattanooga. Then they consolidated their ideas and finally they came up with some specific goals, including celebrating their river by building a freshwater aquarium and rehabilitating their housing.
The experts had told them an aquarium would not fly in Chattanooga. Today a beautiful aquarium stands on the banks of the river, drawing visitors from many states to learn about fresh water ecosystems.
And back then, a local hospital was expanding into a working class African-American community which had historically housed popular fair grounds, but had fallen into disrepair. Today the streets are paved, the clapboard houses rehabilitated and the hospital expansion stopped.
Meanwhile, despair turned into action for a group of women who had been talking about the need for a battered women's shelter. Today the shelter is a reality.
Where did the money come from for all this? Those rich families began investing in their own community and so the aquarium exceeded all expectations. Federal housing grants were strategically redirected and local banks formed a consortium to help out with the housing rehabilitation. And some projects like the shelter relied primarily on the personal energy of people who cared and were willing to volunteer their time.
Along the way, the citizens of Chattanooga changed their form of local government so that they could hold their city council members more accountable. They replaced their at-large representation with geographic representation.
Chattanooga recently went through a revisioning process and has begun to attract environmental industries like non-polluting electric buses and a recycling center which employs mentally impaired adults. The city is planning to turn an industrial site into an eco-industrial park which aims at zero emissions.
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