published Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

13 to watch in 2013: New year begins with promise for Tennessee, Chattanooga

Butch Jones is Tennessee's head football coach.
Butch Jones is Tennessee's head football coach.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Seeing as how the Mayans were wrong about the end of the world, 2013 yawns ahead with promise and plenty of topics to keep under watchful eye.

The year will bring Chattanooga a new mayor, Tennessee a new football coach and TVA a new CEO.

In the same year the region celebrates its 150th Civil War battle anniversary, a new battle looms to more sensibly keep guns where they belong: in safes or on hunting fields — not in schools or on city streets.

Speaking of epic sagas, the movie "42" will air this year and help determine the future fate of Engel Stadium — Chattanooga's historic baseball field once seemingly headed for a date with a wrecking ball.

Then there are marathons: After months of stalemate in Washington, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker may continue to lead the way in negotiating a consensus — at least on financial matters.

Lawmakers, too, are holding up new Erlanger hospital health care leadership decisions. Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, wrote the hospital board just before Christmas that the law governing the hospital will be overhauled in this new year.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga also should have leadership voids filled in coming months. UTC has been without a full-time athletic director since July and without a chancellor since September.

Meanwhile, two Chattanoogans are sure to keep climbing the ranks in the golfing world this year. By winning the U.S. Amateur, UTC senior golfer Steven Fox earned exemptions into the 2013 Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open. And former Baylor School golfer Brooke Pancake earned her LPGA tour card for 2013.

But the looming question? What new record setter does Mother Nature have in store for 2013? More tornadoes? Another blizzard? Drought? The mother of all floods?

Stay tuned.

13 to watch

Tennessee football

After winning four conference titles in the last six years at two different schools, former University of Cincinnati coach Butch Jones took over the struggling Vols program in December.

What 2013 holds for the confident and determined 44-year-old from Saugatuck, Mich., is hard to know, but it's probably safe to assume it couldn't be much worse under Jones, who replaced Derek Dooley.

Dooley's three-year run concluded with a 4-19 SEC mark and capped the worst five-year stretch in modern UT football history. Jones believes he can do better, as does UT athletic director Dave Hart, who gave Jones a reported six-year, $18 million contract to try to revive the Vols.

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    Bob Corker
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

Corker's rising star

Republican Sen. Bob Corker, former mayor of Chattanooga, seems to be carving himself a higher profile in Washington politics.

The Tennessee lawmaker, just elected to his second term, emerged last week as leader of negotiations to Band-Aid partisan bickerings over the nation's financial quandary.

"Next year, in the Senate's new world order of a smaller Republican minority, the 60-year-old Corker is certain to play an outsized role," according to an Associated Press news story in early December.

The writer said that was not only because of Corker's high-profile standing on the Foreign Relations panel, but also because "he is willing to work across the aisle in his eagerness to get something done."

Berke as new mayor?

Ever since Tennessee Sen. Andy Berke was redistricted out and passed on running for re-election, many Chattanoogans have assumed he would become the city's next mayor.

Though mum so far about his plans for Chattanooga in years to come, Berke did pick up qualifying papers for the March mayoral election.

  • photo
    Andy Berke
    Photo by Jake Daniels.
    enlarge photo

Mayor Ron Littlefield, who has faced two recall pushes, is term limited.

Berke's opponents, perennial candidate Chester Heathington Jr. and former city employee Guy Satterfield, are expected to have a hard time competing with Berke's political network and well-stocked campaign war chest of more than $100,000 raised from his last Senate run.

In November, Berke kicked off his mayoral campaign saying he has raised still more money and calling on supporters to "Renew Chattanooga."

He said that if elected, the four main priorities driving his mayoral administration would be jobs, crime, education and government.

Record weather

In 2010, up to 19 inches of rain over the Cumberland River brought what was called a "biblical" flood to Nashville, killing 24 Tennesseans and causing more than $2 billion in damage.

Then 2011 — with 492 tornadoes in the southeastern U.S. — went down in history as the deadliest tornado year across the Southeast with 356 fatalities.

In 2012, Chattanoogans got an extra-early wave of heat in June with a string of 100-plus degree days. The heat wave gave the Tennessee Valley Authority a new record power use jolt and prompted local groups and officials to look harder at what climate change might mean for this region.

Those climate concerns have TVA preparing for another big one: A never-yet seen wall of flood water so high it could topple dams on the upper Tennessee River and swamp emergency equipment at two nuclear plants upriver of Chattanooga.

Readying for a "probable maximum flood" means raising the levels of dams along the earthen berms that flank them. Already $10 million in sand and stone baskets line the flanks of Fort Loudon, Tellico, Cherokee and Watts Bar dams as temporary protection.

More work is planned on both the dams and in the nuclear plants.

TVA leadership changes

Today, new TVA President and CEO William D. "Bill" Johnson takes the place of Tom Kilgore who retired at the end of 2012. Johnson, the former CEO of Progress Energy in North Carolina who helped engineer the merger of Progress and Duke into the nation's largest utility, was ousted as the new Duke CEO after one day in office. Duke board members claimed he was not "transparent" about sky-rocketing repair costs for the crippled Crystal River Nuclear Plant in Florida.

Also today, TVA's nine-member board suddenly has no quorum, thanks to Congress' partisan bickering. Five board nominations have been pending for months in the U.S. Senate, but Tennessee Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both Republicans, blamed the delay on President Barack Obama, saying he made the nominations too late for senators to vet the nominees. One nomination was made in February, and the other four were made in September.

On Dec. 10, five sitting board members delegated decisions involving billions to Johnson "as contingencies."

With Congress' adjournment, the pending five board nominations also expired.

Showdown on guns

High-profile mass shootings, most recently the massacre at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, have put the issue of gun rights and gun control at the forefront of public and legislative debates.

And closer to home, Chattanooga struggles with at least one shooting on its streets seemingly every other day.

City officials say the crime rate overall has decreased, but not aggravated assaults, which includes shootings that don't result in a fatality.

"Aggravated assaults are the biggest concern ... with an increase of 22 percent over 2011 rates," said Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd in November. "We attribute this directly to the number of gang-related robberies, aggravated assaults and murders."

The city's gang problem — denied for decades — came to the forefront last year, with funds being earmarked for a new task force to roll out an anti-gang program.

The Engel Foundation

The nonprofit group that has shepherded the cause of Engel Stadium, the treasured minor league ballpark from another generation off Third Street, has more momentum than ever heading into the new year.

The stadium has benefited from a slew of upgrades after "42" — the major motion picture chronicling the life of former Brooklyn Dodgers star and civil rights champion Jackie Robinson — was filmed at Engel.

Plus, under the direction of chairwoman Janna Jahn, the foundation is aiming to host up to 150 events at Engel this year, including a possible premier of "42."

What will Erlanger become?

A nationwide search for the new chief executive officer of Chattanooga's largest hospital and provider of indigent care — and one of the county's largest employers — was supposed to come to an end by the end of March

But Hamilton County state legislators asked Erlanger trustees to slow down their search until they evaluate the hospital's governing structure and recommend changes, including possibly converting the hospital to a private, nonprofit organization.

Trustees have yet to respond to the lawmakers' request.

Three R's and a stem

Hamilton County's first Science, Technology, Engineering and Math school opened on Chattanooga State Community College's campus last fall.

With iPads in the hands of all 75 high school freshmen, the new school launches a concept of education aimed at transforming learning through project-based and student-led instruction.

The program has broad local corporate and philanthropic support.

Golfing stardom

A year ago, Steven Fox was one of the best golfers on his college team.

Heading into 2013, Fox has a more national accolade as the country's champion amateur golfer.

His win at the U.S. Amateur -- a tournament won by such household names and golfing legends as Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer -- in Colorado last August lifted him beyond the levels of good college golfers.

With the win, Fox earned invitations to this year's Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open.

Then there's also Chattanooga's female golfing star.

Like all recent college graduates, Brooke Pancake in the past year was searching for a job. Then she landed a pretty coveted gig, earning her LPGA tour card by finishing tied for 11th at the qualifying tournament last month in Florida.

Pancake helped Alabama secure the NCAA women's golf team championship by sinking the winning putt on the final hole.

Now, as a rookie in 2013, she'll be playing professional golf at the highest level.

It's good work if you can get it.

Civil War 150th

In making his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 after the Battle of Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln declared that if rebel states did not cease fighting and rejoin the Union by Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves in rebellious states or parts of states would be declared free from that date forward.

This year, the Watch Night tradition followed the historic document to its home at the National Archives with a special midnight display planned with readings, songs and bell ringing among the nation's founding documents.

Here, September and November of 2013 will mark the 150th anniversaries of the Battle of Chickamauga, the engagement at Wauhatchie, the battle of Orchard Knob, the battle of Ringgold Gap and the Siege of Chattanooga.

Officials with the nation's first military park -- the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park -- have spent nearly $1 million repairing and cleaning monuments at the Chicka-mauga Battlefield, Point Park, Craven's House, Missionary Ridge and Orchard Knob in preparation for the dozens of events planned in this Sesquicentennial year.

UTC vacancies

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has been without a full-time athletic director since July and without a chancellor since September.

Roger Brown, chancellor since 2005, retired abruptly in September after announcing he would retire early this year. His move put hiring a new athletic director on hold.

Both positions are filled now by caretakers: Laura Herron is interim athletic director and Grady Bogue is interim chancellor.

UTC, like other state institutions of higher learning, has been hit by years of severe budget cuts, and state officials acknowledge there is little prospect for restoration of those funds.

As a consequence UTC must deal with continuing enrollment pressures, a dearth of on-campus housing and parking, difficulty in maintaining academic programs, some faculty unrest over pay, sometimes rocky town-gown relationships and ongoing infrastructure problems.

Consumer/jobs

Job seekers will have their best prospects in four years in 2013.

Unemployment in Chattanooga fell at the end of 2012 to the lowest point since 2008, and many local employers are planning to add more workers in 2013.

But the pace of hiring still is about 10,000 jobs shy of bringing employment in the Chattanooga metro area back to its 2006 peak.

Some consumers will face higher payroll taxes in 2013, and wealthy individuals also will pay a higher tax rate in the new year, which some experts fear might limit growth.

about Dave Flessner...

Dave Flessner is the business editor for the Times Free Press. A journalist for 35 years, Dave has been business editor and projects editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, city editor for The Chattanooga Times, business and county reporter for the Chattanooga Times, correspondent for the Lansing State Journal and Ingham County News in Michigan, staff writer for the Hastings Daily Tribune in Nebraska, and news director for WCBN-FM in Michigan. Dave, a native ...

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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