by Chuck Wasserstrom
Haven’t been in Chattanooga for a while? The downtown area has a different look and feel.
From the UTC campus, take Mabel Street toward E. 3rd Street and make a left. Around three quarters of a mile down the road, you’ll find ‘The Block’ – a large structure off 3rd and Broad (the site of the old Bijou Theater) with an 11,000 square foot public art piece and 5,000 square feet of functional climbing space on the face.
At the corner of Patten Parkway and Georgia Avenue, the old Ross Hotel (built in 1888) has been converted into the Tomorrow Building – a 39 micro-unit apartment complex designed to house up-and-coming entrepreneurs, innovators and creatives.
Drive through downtown, and look at all of the projects under construction – and know that many others are in development.
At the forefront of the downtown and riverfront renaissance is The River City Company – a non-profit created in 1986 that works to support and develop specific real estate projects by promoting economic development.
And the face of the franchise, so to speak, is UTC graduate Kim White (BA, 1982).
“We are a private, non-profit development company focused on the health of downtown,” said White, who has served as River City Company’s president/CEO since July 2009. “That takes many forms. Sometimes we develop. Sometimes we do master planning. We work in conjunction with the city, the county, and the foundations in Chattanooga – along with stakeholders. That includes UTC.
“We’ve been involved in projects as large as the Tennessee Aquarium 25 years ago and the downtown Riverwalk. And now, we’re focused on downtown housing developments. The scope is very large, but it’s just making sure we have an active, vibrant downtown that is the front door of our community.”
How did White become the face of downtown?
After growing up in Chattanooga, attending Hixson High School and getting a liberal arts education at UTC, White felt it was time to move away. This was still the old, dirty Chattanooga, and there weren’t a lot of local job prospects back then.
While she was growing her career, River City Company was in its growing stages, too. The company was launched with an initial agenda of implementing riverfront growth along the Tennessee River. Riverfront property had to be acquired in order to bring these projects to fruition.
As White’s out-of-town career experience expanded – she eventually spent 16 years at ALLTEL Communications, rising to the level of vice president/general manager – the Chattanooga renaissance continued. But the longer she was away, being apart from family and friends gnawed at her. Kim and her husband, Joe Dan, started looking at a move back home.
“What had happened in the 20-something years that I was away made it an attractive, desirable place to live,” she said. “It’s a whole different place, for sure.
“What’s interesting … I’ve been back for 14 years. When we came back, one of the things that attracted us to move to Chattanooga – we actually got to pick where we wanted to move – was the work that River City Company had done. Little did I know.”
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Moving back home to Chattanooga meant finding a different employer. White, armed with an energetic personality and a solid resume, knew a thing or two about networking – and it helped her get in front of the right people.
As she has said, “It’s not who you know. It’s who knows you.”
United States Senator Bob Corker, the mayor of Chattanooga from 2001-2005, remembers the first time he met White.
“Kim came to town when I was mayor, and she was networking to see what possibilities might exist,” said Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I referred her to multiple people at the Chamber and other places – and I was very, very impressed with her.
“Ultimately, as she continued to move around town and talk with folks, I realized she would be excellent heading up my company. She has a very upbeat personality, very engaging, very professional. She did a great job with it.”
Corker hired White to serve as the president/CEO of the Corker Group in 2004. She worked for Corker Group – and later Chattanooga real estate firm Luken Holdings – until taking her present position at River City Company.
Even though he now spends the majority of his time in Washington, D.C., Corker’s home is Chattanooga – and he continues to see first-hand the progress made by White and the River City Company.
“When I come home on the weekends, I drive around town and just look at what’s happening,” Corker said. “Whenever I can take a detour and see a new project that might be underway, I get tremendous joy out of seeing what’s happening. I feel like when I come home, I’m coming to a resort community. I just love being there. I love the outdoors. I love all that’s happening with so many young people who choose to live there because of the tremendous quality of life. The housing that’s being built downtown is really dynamic and so important; it just continues to lure and attract more-and-more talented folks there. And to have Kim driving those efforts, I love it.
“Kim has a heart for our community. She saw the River City Company as a place where she could continue to work hard, but she could really make a difference. Obviously, she has done a wonderful job there. She’s been the driver of continuing the revitalization that’s taking place there, and the results are evident.
“I’m really happy that somebody like Kim – who cares so deeply about the community – is heading the River City Company. The sky is the limit for her. She is making a difference for all of us.”
Since taking over stewardship of the company, the focus continues on the rebuild, renovation and revitalization of downtown Chattanooga – with an emphasis in increasing retail and residential development downtown. White called ‘The Block’ a success story; the old Bijou Theater was turned into a downtown centerpiece with High Point Climbing and Fitness, local outdoor retailer Rock/Creek, Chattz Coffee and Wine Bar – and, of course, the rock climbing experience.
“There are a lot of people that come to Chattanooga because of rock climbing and the outdoor community,” she said, “and it really was a way to put an exclamation mark right in the middle of our downtown – to say ‘This is who we are. This city is all about the outdoors.’ That has been unbelievably successful. High Point has been ranked as one of the Top 10 climbing gyms in the country.”
When she first moved back, White moved a few minutes away from downtown. “But we were here less than a year and we knew downtown was where we wanted to be.
“There’s so much energy. We wanted to be part of what was going on in the city, and that meant being right in the heart of the campus.”
So with that in mind, her vision for the company became two-fold. White said the key to a vibrant downtown community is having people living downtown. She also said that downtown and UTC need to have a literal and figurative connection.
“What we’ve been missing is downtown residents – and we have that underway now,” she said. “We have 2,600 apartments that are under construction and will be completed by 2019. To give you some idea … before that started, we had 1,300 apartments. So we are greatly increasing our downtown residential population.
“There has to be more student housing options, and that’s beginning now. When I was in school, UTC was really a commuter school. Now, it is a school of choice. What a lot of people don’t realize is that almost 67 percent of the student population comes from outside of Hamilton County. So we’ve been behind the curve in offering enough student housing downtown – which makes students live 5-to-10 miles away. It doesn’t connect them as much as they should with the university and student life and with the downtown.
“Housing options is one piece. The other is to create corridors that have restaurants and coffee shops and things that attract students and make downtown more walkable. We’ve been working with UTC on the Vine Street corridor and the MLK corridor and an area called Patten Parkway that connects right up to the university and will attract more students.
“Even though UTC is a downtown university – and it’s considered a metropolitan university – physically, there hasn’t been as much connection as there needs to be. Chancellor (Steve) Angle and I continue to work on what we can do enhance the connections to get students to come downtown more.”
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While attending UTC, White learned that she could make a difference. That’s the mantra she continues to live by.
“If you get involved and get your hands dirty and you believe in a cause, then you can be a person that can make a difference,” said White, who became active in Chi Omega – later become the sorority’s president. “The importance of networking – getting out and learning and knowing your professors. Getting involved in student organizations and making those connections. That is one of the skill sets that will take you very far in life.
“I think the biggest thing … it wasn’t my degree, it was the fact that it gave me access to leadership opportunities. It was through getting involved and active in the community that gave me the leadership experience that I needed to have more confidence.
“I’ve spent my whole life explaining about me being an art major, but I am an outside-the-box thinker, and I think a liberal arts education is really important; it has served me well. What I learned at UTC was leadership. You’re in school for a few years. You spend the rest of your life doing it.”
As is often the case, though, once she left campus, there was separation from the university. UTC was her past life, and she was more in tune with the present and the future.
Her return to Chattanooga became more than just a homecoming. It brought back feelings for her alma mater and her collegiate experiences – and she immersed herself in community involvement.
“I was not involved for 20 years. I think sometimes time makes you reflect more. The UTC experience had a more profound impact on me looking backwards than I really realized when I left school,” White said. “When I came back, it was an opportunity – after being disconnected for so long – to come back and really pay it forward.
“I got back involved with Chi Omega and I do a scholarship every year for a student. I like to tell the story … I got a scholarship when I was in school. I was a working student. The scholarship meant the world to me, and it really opened the door for me, having the opportunity to get more involved. When I came back, I worked with the Development Office to do the same thing – to give a scholarship to someone in Chi Omega who is active in the community. I’m trying to pay it forward. But it was that experience that was most life-changing for me.”
It became more than just helping out her old sorority. Just like her work with the downtown revival, she’s went full-throttle into working with the university and within the community. White is the chairwoman of the University of Chattanooga Foundation while serving as the chair of UTC’s Real Estate Committee. She is a past president of the UTC Alumni Board and the current chair of the Chancellor’s Roundtable. She is a board member of the Enterprise Center, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and the Chattanooga Design Studio, and is a member of the Chattanooga Rotary Club. Her previous board appointments include serving on the Erlanger Hospital Authority.
“Kim is the type of person who can manage everything and do it effortlessly,” said Jayne Holder, UTC’s assistant vice chancellor for alumni affairs. “It’s been helpful for us to have Kim be able to tell her story … the fact that she was not engaged (with UTC), but was able to step right into a leadership role. She has helped us let others know that there are so many opportunities for volunteering – and that we welcome our alumni back with open arms.
“She has been such an asset because of her position in the community with her job. In my personal opinion, she has pushed UTC from that downtown standpoint more than anyone ever did. We’ve had wonderful supporters and donors, but she has sponsored downtown pep rallies and she makes sure that merchants and vendors put our posters in the windows at homecoming. Little things like that had never been done before. She’s been a real champion for the university, and she always talks about the asset of having the university in our downtown area.
“Kim has been such an advocate for us – probably in many more ways than we will ever know. I am sure that the marketing and the good publicity that she gives us is a daily thing with her.”
White has made it her job to make downtown Chattanooga a destination. She has made it her passion to get UTC alums to reconnect with their university – and to share their stories with future generations of Mocs.
“When I left, I moved away from Chattanooga like most students did because there weren’t opportunities here. We had a sucking away of all the talent,” White said. “Now, what’s awesome is we need that great talent. And these students do want to stay here in our community. That dynamic has totally changed, and whatever we can do to help keep students here is great for the whole economic piece of the community.
“I think we’re able to do so much at UTC because our alums have been giving back – because we have that real-life experience. We were there. We were a part of it. We have great stories to tell. And it’s very rewarding to see what the university has done. I can tell you the value of my diploma is a lot more than it was when I graduated, just because of how well the college has done.
“It’s great to be involved with young students – and to see how we can connect as alums through internships or through helping them network. All of us were helped in some way by somebody else. It’s a way to pay it back.
“I’m literally on campus every day. I walk my dog every morning, and we walk around the UTC campus. People who haven’t been here for a long time will be really shocked at how it has grown – but it has kept its character. It really is beautiful.”