published Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Berke's first year was a good year, and, yes, it likely will only get better

The audience listens as Mayor Andy Berke delivers the State of the City address Monday.
The audience listens as Mayor Andy Berke delivers the State of the City address Monday.
Photo by John Rawlston.

Andy Berke isn't the kind of mayor who glad-hands.

He's a thinker and doer, not a baby-kisser.

He looks at needs, assembles a group of lieutenants, asks for ideas and assigns homework. When he thinks a reasonable plan is taking shape, he assigns the work to those lieutenants and a few more sergeants -- sometimes calling the group "a task force."

He doesn't do a sales job on TV or lobby for support in a newspaper editor's office. He just turns to those tasked and says "make it happen."

This is not the get-along-go-along mode of operation Chattanooga is accustomed to, and Berke has taken some public heat for that -- even from this newspaper.

But his work is moving the city ahead faster than anything since former mayor Bob Corker hurried up the 21st Century Waterfront as the backdrop for his senatorial campaign.

The major difference with Berke's relentless push is people. People -- not fancy sidewalks and greened-up areas by the river and high-rise condos that most Chattanoogans can't afford.

Berke refused to let the out-of-town owners of Patten Towers leave city residents on cots on the charity dime of Red Cross and the Salvation Army. He didn't just hire 40 new police officers to bust people, he embarked on an effort to use new and existing church, charity and city programs to attack the roots of growing violence here: joblessness, disrupted education, lack of social skills and poor parenting.

He didn't just kick the can of unfunded pensions down the road, he called police and firefighter union leaders into a room and hammered out a solution.

For the coming year, he has more people plans.

He has set a goal of ending chronic homelessness of veterans here by December 2016. In 2011, veterans made up 13 percent of the 561 people -- just over 70 -- who were homeless in Chattanooga. Now, according to Veteran Affairs, at any given time the city has about 150 homeless veterans on the streets, and 20 percent are chronically homeless. If we can fix that, we can move on to fixing all homelessness here.

Berke wants to start a "baby college" modeled on the Harlem Children's Zone. It would provide education and resources to expectant parents. We all decry the fact that many education and social problems are rooted in the home. So this is not just pie in the sky: It's basic.

He wants to provide financial incentives to small businesses that create five or more jobs at a living wage. The grants would be available to businesses with fewer than 100 employees. There are about 11,000 of those small businesses in Greater Chattanooga, by the way.

Perhaps his flashiest plan is to establish an innovation district through the reorganized Enterprise Center, one of the city's nonprofit partners. The district would pull together technology, entrepreneurs, industries and education into one area. And its primary function will be to "wake up every day thinking about how we can capitalize on Gig opportunities," Berke has said.

Although "innovation district" is not warm and fuzzy, it is another people project. It involves the next decade's jobs. Previous incarnations of it have gotten lip service here before. Former City Councilman Dave Crockett talked about his dream of making Chattanooga a new kind of Research Triangle-like destination centering on all things environmental. A similar idea from Bob Corker and former Congressman Zach Wamp (the buzzword was "corridor") birthed the Enterprise Center in 2002. Then the center, separated from the city so it could better attract federal funding and foundation dollars, was to partner with Oak Ridge National Laboratory on technology transfers, oversee brownfield initiatives, further the high-speed rail effort and help entrepreneurs.

Now the high-speed train has left the station, and the new aim is to find a way to market and cash in on the world's fastest internet and the wide world of new technology and entrepreneurship -- right here.

It's not kissing babies, though the reading programs and parenting classes should certainly count for love. But for our money, Berke's can-do style of holistic leadership is a welcome change.

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una61 said...

Appears that Berke has a better PR team than Littlefield had.

April 23, 2014 at 5:10 p.m.
fairmon said...

una61 it is not a PR difference but a performance difference. Berke is doing more than cronyism self serving politics.

April 26, 2014 at 7:05 a.m.
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