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Chattanooga charges along

Ten years ago, we profiled Chattanooga, Tenn., in our October “Town Meeting” feature. Here’s a look at what has happened there since then.

A decade ago, Chattanooga was a big story in the Southeast. The former industrial town had built an aquarium, had started developing its riverfront, was expanding its convention center and was welcoming new hotels and restaurants. It was a tourism tour de force, a shining example of urban turnaround.

Such success stories often lose steam. Not so in Chattanooga, a city that has kept changing, charging along as like  the trains that made it Choo-Choo Town.

The once-desolate area around the convention center is “getting big attention now that a $120 million riverfront redevelopment project is wrapped up,” said Steve Genovesi, vice president of sales and marketing for the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

New residents in that district are art studios and restaurants, including St. John’s, one of the city’s three Wine Spectator Award winners.

The Chattanooga Convention Center has doubled in size. Its anchor hotel, the Chattanooga Marriott, recently finished a high-end makeover of its 343 guest rooms. The Read House Hotel, now a Sheraton, has gotten a stylish makeover, and developers unfurled plans late this summer to turn a historic bank building into a Crowne Plaza hotel.

Another piece of history has been preserved on the riverfront. The Delta Queen paddle wheeler, which plied the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, is now a floating hotel.

Downtown Chattanooga has 700 more hotel rooms than it did 10 years ago, about 2,000 total. Some are in limited-service hotels near the convention center; others, such as the 186-room Doubletree Chattanooga, a complete redo of an old Clarion hotel, are near the riverfront and the aquarium.

The downtown restaurant scene also has “exploded,” according to Genovesi. About 50 downtown restaurants, many in clusters, make organizing dine-arounds easy as pie.

An electric shuttle system is a free and easy way to get around town.

The expanded convention center is one of the most visible symbols of Chattanooga’s effort to rid itself of its grimy past. When the center grew, it did so in green ways. Its exhibit halls are lit naturally by massive skylights; an air filtration system can flush old air out and bring new in; and trees planted next to the center’s walls cool it on warm days.

“With the expansion, they did a lot of smart things,” said Genovesi. “Everything is on one level. There are no pillars in the exhibit hall. They used a lot of cutting-edge green technology and were ahead of the curve on that.”

With a 100,000-square-foot exhibit hall and an 18,360-square-foot ballroom, the center attracts more national and regional convention business than it did before the expansion. Corporate business will be bolstered by the opening of a Volkswagen plant in 2011.

Another visible green element is Chattanooga’s system of electric shuttles. They run like Swiss clocks, on five- to seven-minute schedules that drivers monitor using onboard computers.

“A lot of cities have shuttles, but I’ve never seen anything that you can depend on like this,” said Genovesi.

In the last decade, the shuttle system has added some routes; it now crosses the river to the North Shore, “our Greenwich Village,” Genovesi said. And its hours have been extended to 11 p.m.
Chattanooga’s green efforts fit well with its reputation for outdoor adventures and sports. Its Head of the Hooch has become the nation’s second-largest rowing regatta, climbers have moved in from Colorado to take advantage of “bouldering” in the area, an outfitter based near the river can organize bike rides or kayaking and there are 24 golf courses within a 10-minute drive.

One of the premier riding stables in the region is becoming Wild Moon Resort, with high-end cabins at the foot of Lookout Mountain.

On the sports-event side, softball is poised to be the star with the opening this summer of an $11 million softball complex. A girls’ fast-pitch softball tourney held in late summer “sold out the entire town,” said Genovesi.

The riverfront has become Chattanooga’s festival grounds. Some groups plan meetings around Riverbend, a nine-day music festival in June.

“It’s an opportunity for a convention to have an instant theme,” said Genovesi, not to mention entertainment for $30 a person for the entire event.

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