published Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Martin: Entrepreneurship: Partnership worth strengthening

David Martin
The lights of the Tennessee Aquarium and downtown Chattanooga reflect in the Tennessee River at dusk.
The lights of the Tennessee Aquarium and downtown Chattanooga reflect in the Tennessee River at dusk.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

Being a nonnative of Chattanooga, I feel like I spend lots of time taking note of stuff. It's all new to me. I am intrigued by how this city works — how government, businesses, places of worship, residents, academic institutions and civic organizations tie together to create a functioning municipality.

Every city is unique. Sure, there are many shared similarities between most American locales, but there are also traits that contribute to Chattanooga being different than, say, Birmingham or Asheville, N.C.

When my first stint in the Scenic City began 15 years ago as a freshman at UTC, I felt momentum building downtown. The Tennessee Aquarium stimulus was materializing in its immediate surroundings in the form of new dining spots, condos, fashion boutiques and arts and entertainment venues. And, of course, construction of the new Lookouts stadium on Hawk Hill was the talk of the town.

When I completed graduate school and returned to Chattanooga, the energy that I'd sensed when I was at UTC seemed to have accelerated into full-on "pedal to the metal" mode.

Development that had picked up steam during the 1990s was spreading north and south out of the city's core, and areas miles removed from downtown were experiencing growth and prosperity. Even during the throes of the Great Recession, Chattanooga began getting good press outside Hamilton County with the arrivals of Volkswagen and Amazon and the launching of the Gig.

Let's not forget, though, that over the past few years there has been a noticeable uptick in local entrepreneurial projects, which have complemented the big, job-creating headliners. These startups represent nearly every facet of the business spectrum. From senior living to shipping, and whiskey production to tech services, Chattanooga's got the entrepreneurial bases covered.

But here's where I see something exceptional about this city: Celebrating and encouraging these ventures along is an incredible level of civic excitement.

I was trading emails about this phenomenon the other day with YPAC's president, Josh Davis. He's another nonnative, who's lived almost everywhere, and he said what stood out to him immediately is "how entrepreneurs are almost elevated to a rock star status" here. This is an entrepreneurially invested city "that's ready and willing to support local business," he said. Josh also affirmed my belief that the majority of Chattanoogans seem more eager to put a bumper sticker of their favorite locally owned business on their car than their choice for president.

In addition to entrepreneurship, another thing that area residents excel at is civic engagement -- something I've written about in the past. And while that hasn't always translated into large voting numbers, I'd argue that Chattanooga residents continually turn in above-average levels of involvement to make this city thrive.

So, is there a connection between civic engagement and entrepreneurship?

Co-founder of TheAtlanticCities.com, Richard Florida, says yes. Recently, he cited a new study published in the American Sociological Review that shows widespread civic engagement fosters "social trust" and that "individuals in communities with high levels of social trust are more likely to be self-employed compared to individuals in communities with lower levels of social trust."

Community involvement, Florida says, encourages the startup spirit in two main ways: First, it enables an entrepreneur to get the word out about his or her business more easily. And Chattanoogans are always excited to hear about the next new venture in town. Second, "social trust in general can help entrepreneurs and small businesses establish the kind of reputation required to secure financing, attract employees and customers, and build a viable business."

These two Chattanooga traits -- entrepreneurship and civic engagement -- do not exist in mutual exclusivity. They are bound tightly together and they benefit each other tremendously.

While I don't think there has been any intentional neglect of this relationship, it's easy to take for granted. Chattanooga has received some heady accolades lately, and one way to keep the "pedal to the metal" would be to make more conscious efforts to explore where this connection can lead us.

David Martin was the recipient of the 2013 "Civic Impact Award" by the Young Professionals Association of Chattanooga. He is also a recent graduate of Leadership Chattanooga.

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