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Gig System Didn’t Create Chattanooga, Chattanoogans Created It

August 17, 2017

If you believe its proponents, Chattanooga, Tenn.’s municipal broadband system has helped the city attract new businesses and add jobs, and even reduce electricity costs.

In a recent column in the national magazine The Weekly Standard, David Allen Martin, a member of Chattanooga’s start-up community, says those assertions aren’t quite right. While acknowledging the system provides certain benefits, Martin argues “there is something substantially amiss” in this narrative. Martin says, “The real story is that a town and its people had long been committed to renewal and when they got ahold of a wonderful new asset, they already had the civic infrastructure in place to facilitate big wins.”

In other words: Chattanooga’s gigabit system isn’t a cause of growth, it’s an effect.

Before city leaders built their broadband system, they worked to improve air quality (as Martin notes, Chattanooga was once considered “the dirtiest city in America”); embarked upon an ambitious urban renewal plan that included building a 1.1 million-gallon aquarium, an arts district, and a baseball stadium; and lured major corporations like Volkswagen to build new plants in the city.

Martin isn’t the only one who believes it was more than a gig that drove Chattanooga’s renaissance. He notes that a 2016 Kauffman Foundation report said that, over time, Chattanooga “organized and mobilized its assets to orient itself to entrepreneurial initiatives.”

According to Martin, the belief that Chattanooga’s gigabit system drove the city’s rapid growth is the result of savvy marketing. Curious reporters “heard a chorus of voices singing the wonders of the gig” because city officials wanted “to highlight any advantage it has over its peers.” The result was that “Chattanooga feature articles spawned more Chattanooga features, and when locals doubled down on the tech-focused messaging … a predictable result occurred: Almost all pre-gig civic toiling, the work that tilled the soil for the gig’s successes, was filtered to the back of the narrative …” Martin said, “A casual observer couldn’t be blamed if they assumed the gig switch was flipped one day, and voila, all this innovation up and happened.”

In reality, as Martin tells it, it was citizens, civic organizations, nonprofit foundations, and public private partnerships that rebuilt the city over decades.

Why is this story important? Because, believing the marketing, other cities might try (and have tried) to replicate Chattanooga’s “success.”

Martin advises that “citizens and elected leaders everywhere” take into account Chattanooga’s true history before they “sink large sums of taxpayer money into broadband projects.” Otherwise “if leaders in other towns believe accessing fast internet is all that’s keeping their town from becoming some version of Silicon Valley, they will be sadly surprised—not to mention deeply in debt …”