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River Returns

Chattanooga was once known solely for its choo-choo. But that train has left the station, replaced -- somewhat amazingly -- by Chattanooga's charm.

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The Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) and the Leadership Academy hosted urban developers from Chattanooga for the first "Leadership of Place Making" lecture last week, a series devoted to cities that are revitalizing their waterfronts.

"In 2000, we had an old public dock with big warning signs basically scaring all the boaters away," said Ken Hays, former head of the private nonprofit group that developed Chattanooga's $120 million waterfront plan. The project, which included new docks, was completed last summer. "We've encouraged boaters to go there. Now, during nights and weekends, it's hard to get a slip."

Not that Chattanooga's return to the river was easy. But the project helped give Chattanooga what Hays called "an 18-hour downtown."

Ann Coulter, Hays' former colleague, listed several forces that work against any riverfront development: multiple property owners, bureaucratic red tape, aging infrastructure, high costs, the forces of the river itself, and conflicting opinions.

Historically, she said, Chattanooga's "riverfront went from being a place of commerce to a place of industry to a place of complete disinvestment. You would not even know we had a river. We were completely cut off from it."

Part of Chattanooga's problem stemmed from a four-lane state highway that separated the city from the river. To make matters worse, the highway had only one downtown intersection.

"We knew that if we couldn't change the nature of that road, we were wasting our time," said Coulter. The state turned the highway over to the city, which then created five new intersections, reduced the road to two lanes, and added parking on each side.

The project also included a $30 million expansion of Chattanooga's riverside aquarium, a $20 million expansion of the Hunter Museum of Art, a $3 million renovation of its children's museum, enhanced public spaces around the museums, and a dramatic memorial to the Trail of Tears.

To help fund the improvements, the museums and the aquarium combined their capital campaigns. In the end, public funds accounted for $66 million of the project, while private donations totaled $54 million.

In Memphis, the RDC recently spent $240,000 in preparation for its Beale Street Landing project. But the City Council's recent moratorium on capital spending has put the project on ice, so let's ignore the money for a minute.

The one thing that struck me was how much there is to do on Chattanooga's riverfront. The attractions, which include an arts district, a pier, a pedestrian bridge, and a 3-D IMAX theater, are all within blocks of each other.

Go to Tom Lee Park for a couple of hours, and, if you're lucky, the ice cream man will make the rounds. Other than that, you drive in, do your kite-flying or jogging or sitting, and then drive out.

"If you're in Tom Lee Park, you're a mile away from anywhere you can buy a Coke," RDC president Benny Lendermon said after the lecture. "We need somewhere people can sit down and get a drink and use restroom facilities that the city is not ashamed of."

Our riverfront seems so disconnected, both from the city and itself. Riverside Drive is scenic, but it certainly doesn't bring the city down to the water's edge.

Even the more active areas of the riverfront are isolated. Could citizens walk from Mud Island to the future Bass Pro? Sure. Would it be an easy and interesting walk? Only if you like dodging construction, highway traffic, and trolleys.

In fairness, the RDC just extended the riverwalk behind the Rivermark. Before, the sidewalk at Martyr Park just ended abruptly. There was nowhere to go. But even though you can now walk from Martyr Park to Tom Lee, it still seems like there's no place to go.

"Right now the city is teetering dangerously on having no connection with the water. Boats from New Orleans have a strong desire to increase their presence in Memphis, but there's nowhere for them to dock," said Lendermon. "We call ourselves a river city, but there's no access to the water. You can't get to the water to touch it; you can't even really get near it."

The RDC plans to host four to six similar lectures in the series, although the cities are not yet confirmed. And though the plan is to give Memphians ideas, the lectures may just show that Memphis is charmed too.

"Chattanooga didn't have enough public space down there. They had to build some land," said Lendermon. "We're just the opposite of most cities we go and visit. They're looking to carve out public spaces where people can gather and connect. We have plenty of public space. We can gather and connect all we want. We just have nothing to connect around."

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