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A Tennessee town is rebounding after being hit by tornadoes and the coronavirus in the same month — and its successful game plan is a case study in American resiliency

chattanooga mayor berke

  • Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke was expecting the city to have a blockbuster year. Then the coronavirus hit. 
  • The Tennessee city had spent years innovating, and its improvements have proved critical to its response to a series of crises facing the metropolis. 
  • Among other things, Chattanooga is employing a new digital application from cloud-service provider Accela. 
  • The tool helps cities reopen their economies by making it easier for inspectors to make sure businesses are adhering to new rules or regulations. 
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In late 2019, Chattanooga was projected to be the best city in 2020 for job seekers in the US, as well as one of the top five real estate markets.  

Mayor Andy Berke was riding high on the news. Then, like it has for nearly everything else it's touched, the coronavirus swept through Tennessee and changed everything. 

"Every metric we were looking at said 2020 was going to be a good year," Berke told Business Insider. "There has been a hard pivot." 

The city has spent years modernizing. Its decision to invest in a new network to provide ultra-high-speed Internet, for example, made it a hub of innovation — perhaps surprising for a Tennessee city that often sits in the shadow of its larger neighbors Nashville and Memphis. 

Now, Chattanooga's tech improvements are being tapped to help it respond to the crisis and aid local officials as they weigh how to begin to reopen parts of the economy. Adding to the challenge facing Berke and others, the city was hit in April with a tornado that killed 33 people across southern states. 

In many ways, the confluence of events is helping to highlight existing gaps in preparedness and inform how Chattanooga innovates to better respond to similar situations in the future. 

"We're in a world of crisis, on top of crisis, on top of crisis," Berke said. "Whether it's the government, or private industry, or our neighborhoods, we have to build them back in a way that is more resilient to these constant shocks." 

A city that believes in digital equity 

Some of the initial steps Chattanooga took relied more on forward-looking policies. 

It was one of the first in the state, for example, to close down businesses and other operations to try to halt the spread of the virus, according to Berke. 

It also quickly converted its pool of economic incentive dollars into a business relief fund. To distribute that money, the city relied on troves of data on sales, location, and the number and type of business licenses to help pinpoint the  organizations struggling the most. 

Chattanooga is also one of nearly a dozen cities that effectively ended veteran homelessness. Half of the staff focused on that initiative were quickly repurposed to become a coronavirus educational task force of sorts. 

The other employees began efforts to house the remaining homeless individuals, all through virtual outreach. That was "incredibly complicated," said Berke.  

Part of what made it easier was Chattanooga's focus on "digital equity." 

After the buildout of its new fiber-optic network, the city began putting WiFi hotspots in various locations, which connected as many as 1,500 additional families to high-speed, low-cost Internet. 

That stands in stark contrast to other cities that are struggling with how to give low-income citizens access to the web. The School District of Philadelphia, for example, has recommended that students try remote learning in local parking lots around schools and libraries that offer free WiFi access. 

Chattanooga is relying on digital applications from cloud-service provider Accela to, among other things, help government inspectors virtually review sites for adherence to the new rules or regulations. 

Rethinking innovation with taxpayer dollars 

Part of what has made Chattanooga's response to the ongoing crises possible is a government-wide effort to rethink tech innovation. 

The city, for example, is beginning to release new products or platforms for residents much sooner, before all the bugs may be worked out entirely — what is commonly referred to as a minimum viable product. 

That's a major change for governments that rely on taxpayer funds to operate and are often much more risk-averse than private industry. 

"What used to take us three months to do, we now do in a day-and-a-half," said Berke. "We've got to solve people's problems and then iterate along the way, because they don't have time to wait for us to get it perfect." 

And Berke's view that high-speed broadband is a public good puts his city way ahead of the country as a whole. More than 25 million Americans currently lack access to a reliable internet connection — a figure that some experts say is on the low end. 

"If you're a business, if you're a home, you need high-speed broadband to be connected to society. Right now, it is basic infrastructure like water and roads," he said. "A huge piece of what our country is learning right now is we have a lot more to do to make good on the promise of high-speed broadband." 

Building a resilient city 

As Tennessee looks to begin to reopen its economy, part of Berke's job is to make sure the initiatives put in place now help make Chattanooga more resilient against similar crises in the future.  

Berke knows, for example, that area businesses owned by people of color are far more likely to not have a website. That makes it very difficult, if not impossible at times, for those companies to operate during severe social-distancing policies. 

It's one area he will be focused on moving forward, along with ensuring the firms have other necessary applications — like inventory management platforms and ways to communicate effectively with employees in a remote setting. 

"As we build back, we've got to make sure that everybody in our community has the tools that they need to survive the shocks," Berke said.

SEE ALSO: Meet the startup trying to help Kroger and other brick-and-mortar retailers take on Amazon with an undercover AI tool that tracks consumer demand for new products

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