Cooper: Experience, preparation make Kim White best selection for next mayor of Chattanooga

Eufemia Didonato

Never in Chattanooga’s history have its citizens had the opportunity to select its next mayor from such a diverse group of candidates.

To date, beginning with James Enfield Berry in 1840, all of the city’s mayors have been white men. But on the ballot for the March 2 election this year are white men, Black men, a white woman and a Black woman. And one or more of each are likely to gain more than a modicum of support for their candidacies.

We strongly feel the best in this large field of 15 is Kim White, who spent the last decade-plus heading the River City Company, a private, nonprofit group tasked with helping bring development to the city’s downtown area.

She is our choice because as mayor she would be able to bring her business experience, leadership and collaborative abilities to craft solutions for problems in every part of the city.

“I have a different management style,” White says. “It’s community up, not top down.”

That’s actually part of her DNA because her origin story is like that of many others in Chattanooga.

White was raised not in wealth and privilege but in a working-class family in Hixson. She attended Hixson High School and then the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Like many of us, she had to work to help pay her way through college.

(READ MORE: Who’s funding Chattanooga’s mayoral race and where’s the money going?)

When she returned to Chattanooga in 2003 after living out of state for a time, she did not have a job.

However, White eventually landed employment with the Corker Group, the real estate company started by then-Mayor Bob Corker. From there, she moved to her post as CEO of the River City Company, where she helped bring in $1.2 billion in investments.

Many voters may believe River City Company is an arm of city or county government or both, but it is not. It has no power on its own and had no mission outside the downtown area.

“The work there was done by getting everyone together, and I have a history of bringing people together to solve problems,” White says.

The work, she says, involved — among other things — community planning, recruiting developers and taking on difficult projects.

When White arrived at River City, for example, there was very little housing downtown, she said. Today, it is one of the city’s growth areas.

The agency, during her tenure, also transformed empty or little-used office buildings into more usable spaces, repurposed another building to contain the downtown climbing wall and raised $6 million from the private sector to help remake Miller Park.

Since River City was focused on the city’s downtown sector, White spent a year and a half in the other parts of the city listening to people’s hopes and dreams for their corners of the world.

(READ MORE: Chattanoogans surpass previous first day, absentee voting numbers in city election)

“I’m not coming here with all the answers,” she said.

White went to listen because the work downtown was done through collaboration, “and we need that now more than ever — from neighborhoods, from nonprofits, from faith communities,” she said.

And though the city has a strong-mayor form of government, she says in her administration neighborhoods, the city council and the mayor’s office would “all work together.”

However, that doesn’t mean White hasn’t thought about what she’d like to do. She has developed specific plans for affordable housing, diversity and inclusion, sustainability, streets and roads, education and growing business, among other things.

Her plan for affordable housing, for instance, calls for bringing 700 such units online in her first term. That won’t be a project in which the mayor’s office is front and center but a collaborative effort with roles for nonprofits like Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, willing developers who commit to provide such housing, and leveraged funds from the federal government.

“We can’t solve affordable housing on our own,” White says. “It takes everybody. I know who the partners are and how to pull people together.” It could “make such a huge difference” for “families and small neighborhoods.” Her effort, she adds, will be “a focus, not a scattershot approach.”

On the campaign trail, she says, people tell her they are most concerned about jobs, public safety and the city’s infrastructure, by which most people mean street paving.

* Jobs, both in small businesses (which employ half of Chattanoogans) and larger companies, are necessary to the city’s lifeblood and its continuing growth. How they are supported as the nation comes out of its COVID-19 coma will be important.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga mayoral candidates address affordable housing with Neighborhood Enterprise)

White says she will create an Office of Small Business Support, whose director not only will shepherd entrepreneurs through government processes but also connect them to public and private agencies for further assistance. She says she’ll also promote the city to larger businesses — as she did at River City — and work with educational leaders and other partners to make sure those who can be employed at such businesses have the training to take the jobs.

“I know how to pull the resources together,” she says. “We’ll have the opportunity to attract talent, and as mayor I’m the city’s No. 1 salesperson. I’m good at it, and I’ll highlight it.”

* Chattanooga’s challenges in public safety are the same as those across the nation, and some of them have been viewed in footage Americans have had too see all too often over the last year.

Communities want their first responders to look like people in the neighborhoods, White says, and they want them to arrive not with force only but with an array of resources. They want the safety provided by police, for example, but they also want to know there is help for mental health and addiction problems. However, she hasn’t had one person say to her they want to defund the police, she says.

She says cities also need to recruit and train “the best of the best” in its first responders, but barriers include money and the ability to make the jobs more attractive to minorities. Showing the advantages of community policing to young people through the city’s youth and family development centers could be a start, she says, as well as the use of police oversight committees and more neighborhood interactions.

(READ MORE: Early voting has started in the Chattanooga city election. Here’s what you need to know.)

“I’m not scared of the tough conversations,” White says. “When things get tough, I will be there.”

* Chattanooga road infrastructure in recent years, despite increasing amounts in the budget, hasn’t kept up with the streets that need paving and the random potholes that spring up.

White says she will put an additional $3 million in her first budget for paving projects and pave the roads in the worst conditions first. She says she’ll also leverage additional funds through federal and state agencies.

“Our roads are not a very good reflection of what we are,” she says.

What is a good reflection of what we are as a city, though, is the talent among the mayoral candidates. Besides White, two prominent businessmen (Tim Kelly and Monty Bruell), a former city attorney and insurance executive (Wade Hinton), two current city councilmen (Russell Gilbert and Erskine Oglesby) and a dentist and the former local NAACP president (Elnora Woods) are running for the city’s top office.

All can point to accomplishments they believe give them an opportunity to win the race or at least be among the top two finishers who will qualify for an April runoff if required. And like White and some of the other candidates, they have good ideas worth considering (see this Sunday’s Free Press page editorial).

We hope White, if she is elected, will call upon them to partner in the plans she has for the city.

The March 2 mayoral race is nonpartisan. Perhaps that’s why there has been very little of one mayoral candidate bashing another, or much running down of the administration of the term-limited Mayor Andy Berke, like we’ve seen in recent presidential and senatorial races. We hope that won’t change in a runoff — if there is one — no matter who the candidates are.

Nevertheless, our endorsement goes to White, not because she’d be our first female mayor (though she would be) and not because she came from working-class beginnings like many of her fellow citizens (though she did), but because she’s the most qualified and most prepared candidate to do for all of Chattanooga what she had the task of doing for the city’s now-thriving downtown.

“I feel like this is a path,” she says. “This is a way I can use the skills this city’s given to me to pay it back.”

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