In the not-too-distant past, leaders of downtown Chattanooga and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga didn’t realize how near the campus and downtown actually are in proximity. That perception changed dramatically in the 2010 decade.
“I used to speak at the University’s senior seminar, and it was amazing to me that students didn’t realize how close they were to the Riverwalk,” recalls Kim White, a UTC graduate and the president and CEO of River City Co., a nonprofit organization charged with the economic growth and development of downtown Chattanooga. “One of the things that I talked about when I first came to River City in 2009 was what our focus was going to be, and UTC was a huge part of it. People felt that UTC was very isolated
As someone who focuses on downtown, the question was there: ‘How can we get the energy of students to downtown?’”
It was a great question to ask. Although landmarks like the Walnut Street Bridge and the Chattanooga Choo Choo are approximately one mile from campus, back in 2009 they might as well have been two towns over.
White recalls an old, dirty Chattanooga; the University was a commuter school and local job prospects after graduation were limited. The Hixson High School graduate drove her Volkswagen Rabbit to campus, attending UTC because it was affordable and she could live at home. Back in those days, “there was no connectivity with downtown because there was absolutely nothing to do downtown,” she says. “I’ve made the statement, ‘The only thing I remember about downtown was the smell of Krystal’s, the hamburger place that was right across the street from where I worked.’”
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in 1982, White left Chattanooga for 20-plus years. As it turned out, her time in other parts of the country overlapped with the beginning of Chattanooga’s downtown renaissance. “It was great to have a perspective of being in other cities for 20 years and seeing the good and the bad,” she says. “When I first came back, I was wowed at how our city was changing.”
While the Chattanooga she left wasn’t the same, the perceived distance between the city center and UTC still existed. So White immersed herself in community engagement, serving the city on numerous boards, including the Enterprise Center and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. She also reconnected with her alma mater in a significant way through her involvement with the UTC Alumni Board, the UC Foundation and the Chancellor’s Roundtable.
Through her vision of River City linking UTC and downtown, White became an influential voice in bridging that gap. “Her contributions to UTC have been immeasurable,” says George Heddleston, vice chancellor, communications and marketing.
“I’ll never forget this one conversation I had,” White says. “It wasn’t long after Chancellor (Steve) Angle first got here in 2013, and I remember asking him, ‘What can you do to help me get students to downtown?’ And he said, ‘I’m going to help you if you help me get the community to UTC.’
“New eyes created new opportunities, and we looked through that connected lens every time we talked about projects. The fact that the University has been open to partnering and thinking about development opportunities that create gateways, corridors and connective tissue has been great, like the Vine Street corridor, the MLK corridor, downtown housing, restaurants and coffee shops that attract students and make downtown more walkable. Right now, I can’t think of a major decision being made without UTC being at the table.”
Connecting the campus to downtown means students and potential employment opportunities became intertwined, too. “With all of the things that EPB has done with the Gig City and with the Smart City Initiative, the business community understands that there is talent coming directly from UTC,” White says. “More than 67% of the UTC students are now from outside Hamilton County, and we want those kids to stay here. UTC understands the value of having students take part in internships and real- life experiences. To know we have these talented students right in our backyard is an unbelievable opportunity that has been beneficial for everyone.”
Through her leadership, White has proven the adage that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. “I like the statement that ‘every great city has a great university and every great university has a great city,’ and the realization that this is very true,” she says. “What has happened here over the last decade has just been phenomenal. The fact that UTC now uses downtown and Chattanooga as a recruiting tool and downtown uses UTC as part of the things that make us special is a different mindset than when I was in school. Being part of this has been one of the most rewarding things that I have ever been involved in.”