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Chattanooga poised to be major logistics hub

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — The Scenic City is evolving rapidly and the logistics industry is a major player in its growth story. 

That was the message this week when Weston Wamp, the mayor of Hamilton County, Tennessee, sat down with FreightWaves founder and CEO Craig Fuller during the Future of Freight Festival.

Wamp is no stranger to the freight industry. Prior to being elected mayor earlier this year, he was a freight technologist, co-founding business incubator Lamp Post Group in 2010. 

“Up to that point in my life,” he said, “I knew of Chattanooga as a freight hub … but not a whole lot more than that.”

In that role, he led marketing and public relations for logistics startup Access America Transport, which became one of the fastest-growing logistics companies in the country. 

“I got to see under the hood of what a fast-growing 3PL looked like,” Wamp said. 

Access America eventually merged with 3PL logistics provider Coyote Logistics in 2014 and then was sold to UPS for $1.8 billion.  

In the time since, dozens of companies in Chattanooga have grown out of the Access America team to become what is now known as “Freight Alley.” 

“The need for logistics, the need for trained workforce, whether it’s drivers or fleet management, it’s not going away,” he said. “It’s a durable industry in which [Chattanooga has] a legacy and a future and unique story to tell.”

More growth is coming for Chattanooga

Chattanooga is the county seat of Hamilton County, the fourth-largest of 95 counties in Tennessee, just behind Shelby County (the home of Elvis’ Graceland in Memphis); Davidson (the home of country music capital Nashville); and Knox (home of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville).

Starting in the 1980s, the city underwent a renaissance of sorts — a public-private initiative loosely dubbed “the Chattanooga Way” that aimed to transform the former industrial hub into a beacon of tourism and manufacturing. Today, as a result, Chattanooga is home to the Tennessee Aquarium and hosts everything from Ironman to the Head of the Hooch regatta each year. The city is also known as “Gig City” because it was the first city in the U.S. to offer gig fiber internet service.

Local officials say the evolution continues, and soon, Chattanooga could be the next Silicon Valley, or something close.

“It’s a story of a midsized city that does a certain discipline well,” Wamp said. “And it’s one of the reasons we believe we could … be a place unrivaled in our expertise and a hub of capital in the logistics industry.

“As cool as the story of Chattanooga has been for 10, 15, 20 years … the next 10 years in this city and in the surrounding areas … is going to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen.” 

Looking ahead

Aside from its natural beauty, the Chattanooga area is a prime location for businesses to settle, Wamp said. Hamilton County owns a 6,000-acre industrial park known as Enterprise South, which is home to a Volkswagen assembly plant as well as scenic hiking trails. The property, which once served as a military ammunition storage site, still has some area left for business development. 

The county has also purchased 2,200 acres for $16 million in the northern part of the county known as McDonald Farm. Wamp said plans are to eventually turn that site into an industrial park as well. 

“And we have some unique opportunities beyond tax incentives we can give to recruit growing companies here. We run the third-largest incubator in the U.S.,” he said, referring to INCubator, a program that offers support to entrepreneurs.

“It’s county-owned and we have some pretty ambitious plans for it. My hope would be that we’re intentional about focusing a lot of the efforts there on logistics. … What we’re increasingly showing every day is that this is a hell of a place to start a company in the freight industry.” 

But Tennessee as a whole is attractive to businesses, Wamp said, thanks to decades of strong business-minded leadership at the top over the years, pointing to the work of former governors Phil Bredesen, a Democrat who served from 2003 to 2011, and Bill Haslam, a Republican who served eight years from 2011 to 2019; and current Republican Gov. Bill Lee. All of them were businessmen before taking office. 

That’s “20 years of competent leadership statewide, and companies see that,” Wamp said.

But with the success, the mayor, who sits on the Board of Regents — the state’s largest system of public universities — acknowledged Chattanooga and Hamilton County still face the same workforce challenges as the rest of the country. But he remains hopeful that efforts aimed at bolstering the state’s education and training opportunities will be fruitful.

“We are doing stuff in this state that is unique. We are beginning to be really mindful of treating companies as customers. We often think of the company as a customer when we train our workforce, because if we do that, if we serve the company well, inevitably our students will have the skills that will serve them and their families well.”