Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 4, 2020

Mack brings world of experience to River City Company

Growing up in an Indiana town of 5,000 might not have inspired Emily Mack to someday help build cities, but her travels throughout the U.S. and the world with her father did.

Mack’s father worked for the international sales division of Kimball International, which allowed Mack to see firsthand the people and places most youth read about in books or saw in movies.

“Even at a young age, it opened my eyes to the possibilities cities present and what they mean to people,” Mack says by phone from her home in the much larger Hoosier metropolis of Indianapolis.

Mack and her husband, Brian, will soon place their house on the market as part of their preparations to leave Indiana and relocate to Chattanooga, where Mack will take over as president and CEO of economic development nonprofit River City Company.

Mack is stepping up to head the organization as current CEO Kim White is stepping down after 11 years.

Under White’s leadership, Chattanooga has seen a renewed focus on downtown housing, improved connections with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the development of several public spaces, White’s River City biography states. In addition, private investment over the last five years has helped to implement the City Center Plan and redevelop Miller Park.

Mack is assuming leadership of River City as Chattanooga deals with the economic impact of the coronavirus.

The search committee anticipated this when White announced her plans to leave the nonprofit in April, and looked for a CEO that would be capable of building on the organization’s progress in the midst of the storm.

“We were about three weeks into COVID-19 and knew the next leader would have to be able assess the impact of the pandemic,” says board chair Tom Griscom. “That meant being able to plan ahead while also assisting small businesses and several national firms.”

As one of the more than 100 hopefuls who applied, Mack offered River City Company a wealth of experience. Since 2016, she has served as the director of the Department of Metropolitan Development for the City of Indianapolis, making her responsible for overseeing the agency that leads all city planning and economic development.

In the position, Mack supervised 70 full-time employees and an annual operating budget of $70 million.

Mack has also served in roles for the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission and the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services.

Additionally, Mack previously worked in the private sector for CORE Planning Strategies in Indianapolis and served as the real estate development manager for Downtown Indy, a nonprofit organization similar to River City Company.

For Griscom and the board, Mack’s resume offered the perfect set of skills.

“Emily’s experience in planning, developing and funding development projects for the city of Indianapolis was a great fit,” Griscom says. “She’s worked with other partners similar to the way River City connects with the Chamber, Chattanooga Tourism Company and various foundations to envision the future growth and development of our downtown.”

When Mack saw the job posting, she felt as though the position had been written for her. “It incorporates many aspects of roles I’ve held, including my current position with the City of Indianapolis,” she explains. “I’ve always been passionate about downtowns; I believe they’re economic, social and cultural engines.”

These machines won’t stop working because of the pandemic, Mack says. Rather, where some people see businesses closing and downtown emptying out as employees migrate to home offices, she sees Chattanooga’s commercial heart emerging from the pandemic beating stronger than ever.

“COVID-19 has had a devastating economic and social impact on cities throughout the U.S.; however, I don’t believe downtowns are dead,” she insists.

“Downtowns have endured economic depressions, wars, natural disasters and terrorist attacks – and none of those devastating events permanently halted a downtown’s growth or revitalization. Urbanization has always proved to be a greater power.

“As a result, downtowns have rebuilt and recovered, and often emerged better and stronger than they were. It’s tough right now, but I believe downtown Chattanooga will be no exception.”

Mack also adds River City is positioned to help with the city’s post-pandemic recovery. “A lot of work is already happening because of the ONE Riverfront Chattanooga plan, which has set up River City to be a leader and collaborative partner,” she notes.

Mack’s background includes an undergraduate degree from Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, and an eye-opening stint in Chicago. She says living there taught her about the passions of big cities but also their trials and tribulations.

“Many major metropolitan areas experience issues like extreme traffic congestion, environmental challenges such as smog and a high cost of living,” she points out. “My rent for a small apartment in Chicago in 1999 was $1,400 a month.

“While Chattanooga has its challenges, it’s easily navigable and relatively affordable, which are great selling points when compared to larger cities,” Mack continues. “I love how the city offers incredible opportunities but also lacks some of the trials and tribulations some major metropolitan areas have.”

Mack isn’t looking at her new home through rose-colored glasses, she’s simply optimistic. But, as she mentioned, Chattanooga is being tested – especially on the riverfront.

“It’s not as activated as it could be,” Mack begins. “Some of the infrastructure was great 20 years ago, but it’s now a little tired, so reactivating the riverfront and thinking about how to strengthen connectivity and develop a greater sense of place for all Chattanoogans will be a challenge but also a wonderful opportunity.”

Mack also sees River City turning its attention to downtown Chattanooga’s parking lots and vacant spaces, which she says offer an opportunity for “catalytic development that benefits everyone.”

“Those things are challenges because they created holes in the environment, but they’re also opportunities.”

Mack will be River City’s sixth CEO in its 34 years of operation and its first leader to come from outside Chattanooga. Amy Donahue, the nonprofit’s director of marketing and communications, says Mack’s fresh set of eyes will benefit the city.

“Having local leadership has served River City well, but there’s a time for all organizations to ask, ‘What’s next?’” Donahue suggests. “A transition in leadership is a perfect time to do this.

“Emily is coming in with an incredible perspective and tools that maybe we as a city and an organization haven’t deployed because we didn’t have the skillset.”

Although Mack will be living in Chattanooga for the first time, she’s no stranger to the city. Not only is her husband a native, he also has family here. In addition, Mack’s parents are planning to move to the area.

While Mack and her husband don’t have children, they will be bringing their three rescued Bassett Hounds with them when they relocate. Once settled in, they plan to spend their free time enjoying the city.

“I expect to immerse myself in downtown Chattanooga,” she says. “Plus, you have a river and mountains, both of which are amazing, so I’m looking forward to taking advantage of those things.”

Mack is packing as she talks out of a need to multitask. With her first day at River City (Sept. 8.) approaching quickly, she has no time to spare. Getting here on time will be a challenge, but as someone who’s helped to build cities, she knows that’s part of the process – and the fun.

“We’re looking forward to being there. It’s going to be exciting.”