August 7, 2019
Think the future of tech is confined to Silicon Valley? Think again. Businesses and startups are coming to Chattanooga for the fast internet and staying for the quality of life.
If you were to name America’s top tech cities, Chattanooga, Tennessee might not come to mind, but the small city is experiencing an economic rebirth fueled by fast internet. In 2010, Chattanooga built a government-owned fiber-optic cable network and became the first U.S. city to supply its residents with ultra high-speed internet service. Affectionately nicknamed The Gig, the fiber-optic network supplies the metro area with internet speeds of up to 10 gigabytes per second—faster than what you’ll find in most of the world’s largest cities.
Tech firms like San Francisco’s Code Science and logistics companies like Chicago’s Coyote have opened offices in Gig City, while homegrown businesses like Bellhops and SIGNiX are also starting and staying there. While job opportunities are drying up across many places in small-town America, Chattanooga had the nation’s highest wage growth in 2014, and unemployment is currently below 5%.
Chattanooga has a trove of industrial buildings undergoing conversion into collaborative workspaces. Local firm Hefferlin + Kronenberg (HK) Architects has been leading the renovation and conversion of the city’s landscape. While their clients include startups, independent businesses, and established corporations, their aesthetic is less Silicon Valley and more rust-belt restoration. Materials like two-foot-thick masonry walls, steel-riveted beams, and heavy timber might cost $250-$300 a square foot in today’s market, but in Chattanooga, they already exist, waiting to be restored.
Located on the edge of the Southside of Chattanooga, along with the historic Tennessee Valley Railroad line, is the Wheelhouse, a creative complex of workspaces. It’s a model of a new way to work, with companies sharing space, services and projects. Housed in a former manufacturing complex that went through many incarnations, the Wheelhouse was once a Standard Oil Vehicle Repair Shop, then a textile mill, then a printing company, and now it’s a creative village.
HK Architects purchased the 30,000 square foot property, 17,000 sf of which they own and 13,000 sf of which their partner, Set In Stone, owns. They reused existing materials—including steel, brick, and concrete—and used the shared space to create a communal conference room, corridors and artists’ lofts. The HK offices are on the ground floor, and they collaborate on projects with other tenants, including a marketing firm, real estate agency, film editing group and a lighting manufacturer. The Wheelhouse now has a waiting list of tenants—it’s an embodied example of Chattanooga’s thriving entrepreneurial culture.
Not far from the Wheelhouse, on Chattanooga’s Southside, Warehouse Row is a collection of early 1900s storehouses converted into shopping malls in the 1980s. HK Principal Craig Kronenberg designed a master plan for the site that engages the complex with the surrounding city, while Architects Heidi Hefferlin and Clif McCormick redesigned the buildings, using a central mall to create unique collaborative workspaces.
Conventional office buildings contain 8-10% common areas, while Warehouse Row buildings have a common area ratio of 20-25%. To make the most of available shared space, HK designed solutions like glass conference rooms, open lounges and sliding doors that allow spaces to be separated when needed. Connections to shops, dining, and the surrounding city create a vibrant urban center, helping companies attract and retain talent.