In August, country music star Tim McGraw snuck into town for a day or so and shot a video at the old U.S. Pipe and Wheland Foundry grounds.
You know the spot. As you drive Interstate 24 into or out of Chattanooga, the Tennessee River is on one side, the ruined foundry grounds on the other.
River keeps flowing. Foundry keeps rusting. (Isn't that a George Jones lyric?)
Watching the video is not the most intellectual experience, but it does show a lot of trucks, McGraw in torn blue jeans, some trashcan fires and dozens of shots of the foundry grounds with Lookout Mountain rising in the distance like a green wave.
By mid-day Thursday, McGraw's "Truck Yeah" music video had registered 1,148,688 views on YouTube, which means a heck of a lot of people have seen the entranceway to our city.
What matters more is what they didn't see.
"We've had some big box retailers come to us and we just said, 'No, thank you,'" said Mike Mallen, one of the partners of Perimeter Properties, which owns the foundry site.
Picture a Wal-mart. A strip mall. Empty plastic bags, floating like migratory birds through the parking lot air.
Welcome to Chattanooga? Truck no!
The South Broad foundry site used to be the epitome of 20th century industry. But today, the most excitement at the site comes from late-night bandits searching for scrap metal and the rare music video star visit.
In a way, that's a good thing. A really, really good thing.
"We're not jumping at anything," said Bobby Chazen, another Perimeter partner. "We don't want to mess this up. We want something good for our kids and your kids."
When Mallen tells the story of the property, he begins by talking about the FedEx site in nearby Alton Park. In pre-FedEx 2006, that site was being pursued by an Alabama developer who wanted to turn the grounds into a functioning landfill.
"Construction debris. Animal carcasses," said Mallen. "It would have been the highest point between Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge."
Mallen and fellow investors fought the Alabama developer and wound up buying the property themselves, eventually recruiting FedEx, which in turn brought jobs, revenue and a Fortune 100 company in place of a landfill.
This story tells a lot about Mallen and the Chazen brothers, who say development isn't always about the cheapest or fastest, but what is the right thing that can be done with the property.
Something similar happened when they bought the U.S. Pipe property.
In 2005, parent-company Walter Industries decided to close its U.S. Pipe plant. Mallen and the Chazens feared that Walter Industries would just want another foundry to take over the site.
"Gary (Chazen) and I called their leadership in Tampa and asked if we could come down and have a meeting to talk about what the site meant to the city as a gateway," said Mallen, "and whether they might entertain an alternative exit."
Walter Industries agreed, selling the 91 acres for a seven-figure price tag. The developers then partnered with Lyndhurst Foundation to formulate a set of urban design principles, writing a vision statement that includes some powerful language: environmental responsibility, diverse housing types, innovative business, economic generator, attractive, engaging, public space, a visually distinct gateway.
Then a corner of the American economy collapsed, and 2008 proved a crippling year that "just changed everything," said Mallen.
So the wait continues. Chattanooga's got some pretty strong mojo right now, attracting attention near and far. The Riverwalk will soon run through the property. Mallen and Chazen feel like the right catalyst will come for the site.
From a foundry to the future.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...