The Techie Mayor Who May Be Tennessee's Next Governor
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a tech boom could transform your town next.
By Nick Fouriezos
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke is a Waffle House kind of guy — single waffle, scattered hash browns, that’s his jam. But today he’s showing me his hometown’s Innovation District, an up-and-coming neighborhood of startups and incubators he’s helped engineer, so instead we’ve hit a trendy breakfast spot with brick walls, savory biscuits and, by 8 a.m., a long line. As we wait to get in, Berke can’t resist; he wanders off to shake hands with some firefighters, a few city economic wonks and the restaurant’s owners.
Once seated, we get talking about the Gig: the reason global think tanks, urban planners and business leaders have trekked here to pick Berke’s brain. The citywide program, funded by a $170 million municipal bond and $111 million federal grant, is perhaps the most effective public-Internet operation in the country; high-powered fiber optics offer every home and business up to one-gigabyte-per-second speed for a low price. The Gig was running before Berke took office in 2013, but he’s upped the ante and it’s paid off: More than two dozen startups have located here since 2012. “What the Gig did was change the idea of what our city could be,” Berke says. It’s also got Tennessee Democrats thinking Berke could be the next governor.
Tax breaks are still a big business incentive, but digital infrastructure is increasingly becoming the ultimate sweetener.
Old-school manufacturing cities across the U.S. are turning to tech to heal the recession’s scars. From St. Louis’ Cortex Innovation Community to Boston’s own Innovation District, neighborhood technology centers are on the rise. “These cities have what businesses want,” says Bruce Katz, a Brookings Institution scholar who studies urban renovation. Fortune 500 companies like IBM, Siemens and Verizon are selling smart-city services that add to the mix, and the White House has pledged $160 million to 60 cities to join the party. Tax breaks are still a big business incentive, but digital infrastructure is increasingly becoming the ultimate sweetener.
Stanford-educated Berke, with silver-flecked hair and wire-rimmed glasses, lays out his plans with a techie’s energy and a policy wonk’s nerdy know-how. He pulls up a chart on his iPhone showing how arrests have decreased since the city focused on policing violent criminals over sweating smaller stuff like disturbing the peace. In a meeting with faith leaders, the subject is economic salvation: The city’s jobless rate dropped from 7.8 percent in April 2013 to 5.4 percent two years later, and the city had the country’s third-highest wage growth last year. “What we’re trying to do, with y’all’s help, is to make sure that every citizen is empowered to live the life of their choosing,” he says before launching into Affordable Care Act sign-ups and discussing revitalizing poor neighborhoods. It’s a red-state Democrat’s stump speech — jobs, jobs and, oh, yeah, don’t forget about the little guy.
Tennessee’s statehouse is mostly Republican, but its five biggest cities are led by Democrats, and recent history shows metro mayors often reach higher office. The last two governors, Democrat Phil Bredesen and Republican Bill Haslam, were mayors of Nashville and Knoxville, respectively. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker was Chattanooga’s mayor. Berke, a family practice lawyer and former state senator, says he’s focused on his job for now. But that hasn’t stopped Democrats from touting him as a 2018 governor candidate.
“Times change, and they often change without warning,” Berke says, speaking both to his state’s GOP shift in the late 1990s and to a possible Democratic comeback. Unlike some more cautious Southern liberals, Berke isn’t afraid to let his blue freak flag fly, emulating his political hero, Lyndon B. Johnson, with Great Society dreams on a smaller scale. Once the “dirtiest city in America” with rampant pollution from coal and railroads, Chattanooga now offers subsidies for residents who make eco-friendly improvements, and it plans to harvest solar energy from homes. Two lanes of a main corridor, Broad Street, will soon be dedicated bike paths.
So much change in a short time has some residents uneasy. Mayor Berke “always looks you in the eye and smiles,” says Alison Falinski, who has been a Chattanoogan for 21 years. But, she gripes, “the community has no input” in moves like new bike lanes or tax incentives the city hands out “like candy.” Berke has also been criticized for acting more like a CEO than a mayor, eliminating 18 of the previous mayor’s 21 appointees, for example. Former director of city parks and recreation Larry Zehnder says that’s throwing away the city’s institutional memory. “I love creativity and new ideas, but you can’t do it in a vacuum,” Zehnder says.
Berke acknowledges the concerns but believes the changes are for the better (and notes the bike lanes were discussed at public meetings). Later, I ask Berke if there is a side of him that the public hasn’t seen yet. “I don’t really have anything,” he says, laughing nervously. Says an aide: “He hates the introspective questions.” Eventually, he offhandedly mentions his prowess at Ping-Pong and his proclivity for ’80s rap music, though he’s quick to say it doesn’t signify anything. Maybe it doesn’t now, but by 2018, it just might.