Mayor Andy Berke gave the Women’s Council of Realtors several talking points for clients considering a move to Chattanooga during his speech at the group’s most recent luncheon, held Aug. 5 at the Choo Choo Hotel.
“It’s always an honor to speak with Realtors because no one talks with a wider variety of people,” Berke said as he stepped up to the podium. “Whether you’re selling someone’s house or giving someone a tour of the city, you hear the concerns people have. They want to know what our economy is like, what our schools are like, and what the quality of life here is like. People turn to Realtors to find out what this community is like.
“So even though I’m going to share my thoughts about those things, I want to know what you think. Please know you have an open invitation to City Hall.”
The mayor prefaced his talk about the city’s economy and crime rates with praise for law enforcement and the community at large in the face of the tragic shooting at the Naval Operational Support Center on July 18, during which a gunman killed four Marines and a sailor.
“That was a call I never expected to receive,” he said. “But as I look back, the thing that amazes me is how well our people responded, beginning with our police. You can be proud of the people who patrol our streets every day in an effort to protect you.
“They could have ran away from danger, but they ran toward it, and they did precisely what they had been trained to do. The incident could have lasted a long time, but it lasted only a few minutes because they did exactly what they were supposed to do.
“The incident happened on a Thursday. On Saturday, a sergeant major with the Marines told me if he were in a firefight, he would want the Chattanooga police to have his back.”
Mayor Berke also praised the response of the community.
“I would guess a fair number of you have driven through the memorial on Lee Highway,” he said. “The calm, the quiet, and the respect impress me. So do the prayers of our community. I want them to continue because we need to heal together.”
The mayor then said he was moving on to something uplifting: the economy. When talking about the local market, he stressed two things: the drop in the city’s unemployment rate and rising wages.
“When I was elected mayor in March 2013, the unemployment rate in the city was 7.8 percent. Two years later, it was 5.4 percent. That’s incredible progress,” he said. “And we’re not just seeing more people entering the market, we’re seeing wages go up. In 2014, Chattanooga had the third highest wage growth of any mid-sized metropolis in the country.”
Mayor Berke said these improvements are not a result of the Volkswagen expansion, which will produce 2,000 more jobs, or of auto suppliers like Gestamp increasing their employment numbers in the city, something the mayor said will eventually create as many as 8,000 more jobs.
“Our employment numbers are going to get even better as more auto suppliers move in,” he said.
Mayor Berke stressed that the health of Chattanooga’s economy doesn’t hinge on the automotive industry alone. Rather, other industries are having an impact on the local economy as well. Berke specifically mentioned the IT industry, which is partly responsible for the increase in the average local wage.
“The average wage for an IT worker in our community is $68,000, and we’re seeing a huge expansion in IT work in the city,” he said. “That activity is only going to boost our economy.”
With regard to the increase in IT work, Mayor Berke cited the creation of the Innovation District, anchored around the Edney Building at 11th and Market Streets, and the growth of certain companies in that area. Specifically, he pointed out the growth at Southtree, a Chattanooga start-up that digitizes old media.
“Southtree started with two guys in a dorm room, and they now have 107 employees downtown,” he said. “This diversifies our economy so we’re not just relying on the automotive industry but are bringing in high wage jobs that can truly transform our economy.”
The challenge moving forward, Mayor Berke said, is making sure Chattanooga is producing people who can do the work. “BlueCross BlueShield has 53 open IT jobs,” he said. “We need to fill those positions.”
Mayor Berke also touched on crime, starting with property crime.
“Last year, we saw historic lows in property crime, and this year, we’re 10 percent below where we were last year,” he said. “Part of that has to do with how the police are approaching the problem. A lot of property crimes are driven by young people who commit five, 10, or 15 of these crimes at once. Chief (of Police Fred) Fletcher makes these people a priority. You can really bring those numbers down by taking these people off the streets.”
Mayor Berke said shootings are down 10 percent, but need to come down more. “Although we’d like that number to go down faster, we’re heading in the right direction.”
Best town ever
With his time at the podium running out, Mayor Berke quickly mentioned many of the things he says provide a good quality of life in Chattanooga, including the amount of outdoor activity available and the major sports competitions taking place in the city, such as the Iron Man events and the Chattanooga Marathon, coming in March 2016.
His point, he said, is that Realtors have plenty of good things about Chattanooga to tell their clients.
“A few weeks ago, Chattanooga was named the best town ever. And lot of great things have been going on in our community the last couple of years. Our economy is thriving, people are working hard together, and our outdoor activities are thriving. All of these things led to that designation.” he said. “But over the last few weeks, people have also seen our character, and I could not be prouder of the city in which I live. Thank you for being a part of the greatest mid-sized city in America.”