published Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Details will provide measure of Berke's initiatives

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    Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke delivers the State of the City address Monday at the Chattanoogan.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
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Who can argue with promoting entrepreneurship and technological innovation, assisting small businesses, ending homelessness of veterans and giving new parents skills to help them with their children?

Surely, every Chattanoogan can be on board with those four second-year priorities set by Mayor Andy Berke in his first State of the City address on Monday at The Chattanoogan.

How they're accomplished, though, produces more questions than the mayor could answer in his speech. But city residents deserve the details and assurances the efforts are not duplicative and expensive.

One of Berke's initiatives is for The Enterprise Center (TEC), a not-for-profit corporation of which the city is a partner, to nurture "our budding entrepreneurial ecosystem" and support "our technology industry."

It was announced in March that TEC, which was created in 2002 to house the city's economic development initiatives, would shift its mission to growing the city's economy and addressing issues such as access to technology for all citizens. A new president and board members were to be named, and its stakeholders -- which include Berke -- will review its bylaws, strategic plan and projects.

As part of that new mission and structure, Berke explained in his State of the City talk that the TEC would establish an innovation district, "pulling together advanced technology, entrepreneurs, existing industries and higher education into one location." The location, he said, has not been selected yet, and just what entities will be pulled together probably will not be clear until the new TEC team is announced and the review is done.

The TEC, according to Berke spokeswoman Lacie Stone, receives $160,000 in annual city funding and for budget year 2014-2015 is not likely to be funded "less than the budgeted amount in previous years."

No business sector has been hurt as much by the Great Recession and President Barack Obama's regulation-heavy, health care-mandating administration than small businesses. If the mayor's Growing Small Business initiative helps small businesses expand, the city will be the beneficiary in a variety of ways.

The initiative, Berke said in his address, will provide incentives to businesses of 100 employees or fewer who make a "substantial" workforce expansion of "good-paying, middle-class jobs." Stone said Tuesday "substantial" meant five or more employees.

It would be wonderful for all small companies to expand their employees by a minimum of 5 percent, but that's no easy feat in a stubborn economy. So the devil is in the details about what the incentives will be and how many businesses can qualify.

Nothing is sadder than a veteran who served the United States in war having to live on the streets. For that matter, it's a shame anyone has to live on the streets.

Berke's goal is to end chronic veteran homelessness -- helping approximately 40 people, he told Times Free Press reporter Louie Brogdon -- by December 2016. On Tuesday, he signed an executive order creating the Mayor's Task Force to End Chronic Homelessness. He suggested in his speech that business, community and government leaders, and veterans, will be involved. The executive order also indicates "organizations currently committed to addressing the issues with the homelessness of veterans" will be among the resources.

Whether the task force will examine the plight of other homeless Chattanoogans and whether homeless veterans will leap ahead of those Chattanoogans in the battle for resources is unknown.

Finally, Berke suggested a "baby college," an initiative pioneered by Jeffrey Canada of The Harlem Children's Zone, "to tutor expectant parents about how to keep their newborn healthy and happy."

What new parent couldn't use some advice on what to do, especially in that critical first year? Stone said the city's Department of Youth and Family Development, in implementing the initiative, will "certainly partner with an existing organization (or organizations) to deliver these services."

The Harlem Children's Zone website defines its baby college as "a series of workshops for parents of children ages 0-3." Locally, the United Way of Greater Chattanooga already offers learning checkups for any child under 5, so parents can be sure their child's learning skills are developing properly, as well as an entire program area, Project Ready for School, which works to ensure every child enters school with the skills necessary to be successful.

We hope the mayor's baby college will not overlap, but perhaps combine with, the important work already being done locally.

We salute Berke's energy, ideas and willingness to try new things. We want them to succeed, but we believe Chattanoogans also want to be sure they're done in a pragmatic and economically sound way. We look forward to seeing the details unfold.

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