The city of Chickamauga is doing well, despite the slow economy, said city manager John Culpepper, and is functioning much better now than a decade ago, with the future looking ever brighter as it gears up for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga next September.
“All of our stores in downtown Chickamauga are occupied now and open for business,” said Culpepper. “And the businesses on U.S. 27 are prospering also. We are weathering this downturn in our local economy.”
Ever since the recession hit, Chickamauga has managed to make do without levying austerity measures on its employees or citizens. “We haven’t had to repeal city services. We haven’t had to lay any employees off or cut the hours back, and we haven’t had to dip into our reserve funds to fund our budgets during this time,” said Culpepper. “And one thing I’m very proud of is that during this time the city of Chickamauga has continued to operate the city without a general fund tax rate. We have not had a general fund tax rate since 2001...over this ten-year period of time we have saved the residents, businesses and industries over $4,111,000.
“Now if you back up twelve years ago, things did not look that bright for the city of Chickamauga,” Culpepper reminisced. “We were fast losing our mom-and-pop retail stores. They could no longer compete with the chain retail stores that are located in Fort Oglethorpe and located in LaFayette...There was a period of time in the city of Chickamauga when you couldn’t buy a spark plug or a pair of socks. The stores did not exist. Of course, that’s turning around now with the retail development on U.S. 27.”
In addition to annexing part of U.S. 27 and making it a city business district, Chickamauga focused on highlighting its best attributes: namely, it’s history and tourism appeal.
“We then developed a strategic economic plan to use our rich Civil War history as a centerpiece for revitalization of our city,” said Culpepper. “We focused on becoming a gateway community to the Chickamauga Battlefield...Through these efforts we have brought the largest industry in the United States to our community: tourism.”
One of the major tourism-promoting projects underway in Chickamauga right now is the development of a canoe trail along Chickamauga Creek. The trail will have several launch points, including behind Lee and Gordon’s Mills, and, with the help of Chickamauga Battlefield superintendent Cathy Cook, will eventually feature interpretive signs explaining historic events along the creek as well.
“Tourism, heritage tourism, recreation – not only does the city of Chickamauga have it, but the whole of Walker County has it,” Culpepper said. “Let’s get on board.”
“Finally, we are now commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War...To commemorate the Battle of Chickamauga there will be a 150th battle reenactment held in beautiful McLemore’s Cove on the property owned by the county and state. Based on the figures from two major reenactments this year...we are expecting over 8,000 re-enactors from across the nation and world to attend...We expect to bring over 25,000 spectators to the event...And for two days, McLemore Cove will be the largest city in Walker County...The average Civil War tourist spends $113 a day, which will create a substantial economic impact on Walker County and the entire Tri-State area.”
“About the only thing I can say is that the current status of the city of LaFayette is undergoing change,” said LaFayette mayor Neal Florence.
“The end of 2011 saw us replace our city manager...We also have new city council members elected...This is their first time on the city council and they’re bringing energy and ideas to the meetings which is helping us very much to try to put together young and old and bring ideas that the city can prosper from.”
“We also have a new electric department head, Mike Stewart. “A new street department head, Mark White. A new chief of police, Bengie Clift. New fire chief, Robert Busby. Tell me we’re not undergoing change!” Florence laughed.
“After much work and the effort that (city manager) Frank (Etheridge) put into it, we now have a balanced budget of $21,329,000. So we’re working within what we can do to provide services for the city.
“Some things that are coming up: we have water and gas line extensions. We’re upgrading the water system all the way to Rock Spring so we can supply more water for their schools that are being developed. The gas line – we’ve got an extension we’re trying to put down on East Broomtown Road to help with some of the chicken farmers and chicken houses down there that use a lot of propane.
“Our electric department has implemented a tree-cutting program. They started in March and tried to hit the most critical areas so that we can provide a better, more reliable service of electricity to our citizens,” said Florence.
The LaFayette Downtown Development Authority also received commendation from Florence for their hard work in bringing more events and tourism to LaFayette. “They have had the second Music on the Square, which brought in about three or four thousand people, which was very successful. They’ve implemented a car show that they have the first Saturday of the month and they’re doing much to be able to bring in people and give people a reason to come to LaFayette.”
Furthermore, LaFayette is continuing its work on beautifying its downtown area, which will hopefully draw even more people to events in the future.
“Phase two of our streetscape project should be starting sometime probably in August,” said Florence. “We’re going to be upgrading – if you’ve seen Villanow Street where we have sidewalks and streetlights and grass and it really looks great – we’re going to be doing the same thing going across the square on Villanow and Patton Street that will go down to Cherokee Street. So it’s really going to make the town, the downtown square area look much better.
“We have a new library under construction,” he said. “It took three, four years working on this, putting it before the legislature to try to get us some money to be able to build this new library.
“We also have construction going on at the airport...We got a $500,000 OneGeorgia grant...so we are starting construction on that...The old terminal’s been torn down; we’re ready to start construction on the new one.
“The golf course was upgraded because we are finishing the lake that goes beside number 18, just to make it a little bit of a tougher course for those of you who play out there,” Florence continued. “The course is in great shape, so come on out and play with us.
“In business, we seem to be in the Mecca of new development with business,” the mayor said. “Syntec has just moved its operation from Dalton – they had three plants: Dalton, LaFayette and one in Rome – and they moved their operation from Dalton over to here. So, thanks to the management at Syntec, they preserved over 120 jobs there...The BlueBird building has been sold to Phillips Manufacturing and they’re going to be in there making back lifts and all for high-offer garbage trucks. So they are going full-blown, and that is coming to fruition and we’re getting that moved.
“We seem to be having a lot of other things that may be on the table as far as development is going on,” Florence said. “You’ll just have to wait and see how those play out.”
Lookout Mountain mayor Bill Glascock’s main concern is the stuttering potential development of a new town center, which would update the city hall and police and fire stations as well as provide room for stores, retail or office opportunities. The project has yet been unable to find a developer willing to help front the cost.
“We’ve been trying to develop a town center for the last two and a half years,” said Glascock. “We live in a town that has 680 homes. Our general fund is around $700,000, which puts us in the super rinky-dink scale of towns. It’s difficult to develop property in a demographically challenged area...We are surrounded by national forest, there are 1,800 of us, and we are trying to figure out how to best survive in our little enclave. That’s our challenge.
“In government, from my very inexperienced outlook, government has to be fed before it can do that kind of thing. At the last city commission meeting last night, we produced a budget that had no increase in taxes, had no increase in fees, and had no increase in salaries. And we had layoffs. And it wasn’t funny. I didn’t like it. My preference would be to go in the opposite direction...I want to see real estate development. I don’t want to wait a year to develop property. I think it’s critically important to our community to have a grocery store and a doctor’s office...I think one day we’ll have it.
“I was elected to build a sidewalk through the town. And I am 75 percent through. When I leave office as mayor in a year and a half, I hope to have that completed. But the lesson that I’ve learned is that, if you’re going to get into government, set your goals and stay with them, stick with them through your term, and you’ll prevail. It is not easy. It is not easy to be the mayor. It is not easy to look at people and say, ‘You can’t work here anymore.’ But it’s something that has to be done sometimes.
“I still think we should develop property and move forward. Now is the time to do it. This is the best time ever in our lifetime to buy a house, and yet nobody’s doing it. Three percent interest, and nobody is buying houses. It’s going to turn around eventually. As a developer I know this is coming back. It may be three years, it may be five years. But I am pro-development, I am pro-Chattanooga. I travel a lot and I see a lot of cities that are in great trouble. Flint, Michigan; Decatur, Illinois. The populations in those towns are going down. They’re negative two percent a year, three percent a year. That’s not true in Chattanooga. We are this lucky little section of the South that is profiting from Volkswagen and all the other companies that are coming in...I think it’s really important that these small towns push forward with that, because in the next five years I am absolutely convinced that we will have a vibrant economy throughout this area.”
“Remember back in the fifties and sixties,” said Ron Wade, chairman of the Rossville Downtown Development Authority, “we were the mecca of Chattanooga. Then things began to change. You mention Rossville Boulevard now: ‘I...I’m not gonna go down there.’ It just has a negative connotation; we are trying to change that.
“There are some tough times in Rossville. We’re sort of not moving forward; we’re resurrecting. There are some good things that we’ve already done, some things that must be done...Do you realize that we’ve ridden by those old, ugly pipes on the Peerless Mill for 35 years. It became a part of your mindset and you just ‘Oh, okay, nobody’s ever done anything about it.’ But it’s time to do something about it.
“We are in a process now of changing some things that are going to be very important. It is my goal to try to change how people think about and vision Rossville in the new era.
“Not only is changing people a daunting task, some people will say it’s impossible. And you find those people who are visions, who have those visionary thoughts...That’s the person I’m looking for and the city of Rossville is looking for.
“We have 45,000 cars coming through Rossville every day...We’ve just got to get them to stop. We’re on the verge of doing that. Roy’s Grill, as historical as it is, has changed the area right there on the state border...The person running the grill now has overflow people and has already bought another building himself that’s just across the street. That’s progression. That’s what we’re looking for, and we will get there.”
Wade praised two new ventures in Rossville – a BMX bike park and the new fish-and-produce venture of Inner-City Aquaponics, built at the old Rossville High School track.
“You are going to see that grow and grow and grow,” he said of the aquaponics farm, “and we’ve already been approved for a grant to open an open-air market so he can also peddle the goods from there, from that particular area...The good thing about it is that it’s tied to the educational system...This is just a wonderful example that this can work for us all.”
The ownership of the Peerless Mills site may soon be resolved, said Wade. “We do think that we are on the verge of that becoming a positive attitude and soon some things will start happening there.”
“We believe that people take more of a special interest if they have a particular area of a city sort of like a community. We’ve looked at various places. What we’re trying to designate and are in the process of doing now is designate those little areas...one of the things that we will do is to name seven different communities that people can congregate in.”