Economic Develop-What: A Conversation with Steve Hiatt

By Lizzie Hickman

Steve Hiatt has spent most of his career as a superhero. Zooming across Chattanooga from business to business providing solutions to problems, expertly crafting incentive packages and stopping potential supply chain snags in their tracks.  

Instead of a cape, Hiatt wears the title of Director of Existing Business Development at the Chamber.

ChattanoogaTrend.com caught up with Hiatt to learn more about his role at the Chamber and economic development in Chattanooga.

Trend: How did you get your start in economic development?

Hiatt: A previous job I had led to my career in economic development. I was the district chief of staff to Congresswoman Marilyn Lloyd who served 10 terms before she retired. After that I went to work for the TN Dept. of Economic and Community Development (TN ECD).  While there I had responsibility for 10 counties in southeast Tennessee doing recruitment and retention work.

In my work with TN ECD I worked with the Chattanooga and Hamilton County economic development authority, Partners for Economic Progress (PEP). I worked for TN ECD for a little over a year and PEP had an opening for an economic developer. I applied and was hired. That’s how I started working in economic development here in Chattanooga and Hamilton County.

I worked with PEP for several years when the mayors of Chattanooga and Hamilton County decided to place publically funded economic development into another entity. The River City Company and PEP merged, becoming what was then River Valley Partners and has since reverted to its original name, the River City Company. A few years later, the mayors decided to place publically funded economic development under the Chamber of Commerce. That is how I ended up at the Chamber.

Essentially, I’ve been doing pretty much the same activities of recruitment and retention in economic development even though I’ve been in a couple of different organizations.

Trend: What is a typical day like for you?

Hiatt: It might be working with a company to help them get the information they need to make a decision to create jobs and investment in Chattanooga and Hamilton County. Or it could be putting together incentive packages that make it easier for businesses to locate here. A lot of my work is helping businesses navigate the local permitting process. I’ve even helped a company get a pothole filled on a public street in front of their location.

I try to solve problems for local businesses. 

Trend: Is Chattanooga diversifying its economy?

Hiatt: Yes, definitely. As you can tell we are pretty well served in the automotive industry. Chattanooga and Hamilton County has always been well served by the transportation industry but within the last few years we have seen an explosion of companies that are in or serving the transportation industry.

Trend: What are some of the largest economic development initiatives in Chattanooga?

Hiatt: Chattanooga 2.0 and their efforts to prepare students with the skills that local businesses and industries need.  

Trend: How can Chattanoogans contribute to economic development?

Hiatt: I think one of the best ways that people in this region can help economic development is to support local public education. The biggest issue employers are facing now is an available skilled workforce. The best way to resolve that issue is to take an active role in and support public education.

Trend: How can local businesses contribute to economic development?

Hiatt: Some of our best partners in economic development are local businesses. They help support our economic programs financially and are also potentially a good resource for leads.

Sometimes a local company has a customer or supplier looking for a new location in the Southeast and they let us know that so we can contact that company to determine if we can assist them in their deliberation process.

Existing business and industries are the best ambassadors for Chattanooga. When prospect companies visit the community they almost always ask us to arrange confidential meetings with local employers to learn about the local business climate.

Trend: How do you find balance between attracting new businesses and maintaining homegrown companies?

Hiatt: It’s important for a community to have a healthy balance between small, entrepreneurial businesses and larger businesses. A diverse economy that is well represented by large and small businesses and a variety of business sectors can more easily weather economic downturns.

The Chamber’s INCubator at the Hamilton County Business Development Center is one of the largest incubators in the country and has an exceptional history of nurturing entrepreneurial businesses.   

Trend: What makes Chattanooga the perfect place for companies to locate to?

Hiatt: We’ve got a low cost of doing business, a friendly business climate and very supportive local governments.

Trend: Why is it important to have a structured economic development team?

Hiatt: When we work to recruit a new business to town or help an existing business grow and add new jobs, economic benefits spill over into the local economy. 

For example, if our team recruits a new industry to Chattanooga they will be bringing in new jobs. They’ll bring in some of their own people, which brings in new money that wasn’t in our community, but they will also hire from the local talent pool. When local Chattanoogans see an increase in their incomes, they start eating out more often, buy a new car, maybe a new house. 

Our team conducts a cost benefit analysis anytime a new business is looking to expand or locate in Chattanooga or Hamilton County. Even with financial incentives, it is always better for our community when a business locates here because of the economic benefits from the new wages and new taxes in the economy.

Trend: What impact do startups have on Chattanooga’s economic development?

Hiatt: I think anytime there is a thriving entrepreneurial community it adds resources and benefits to the economy. The INCubator's small businesses buy local goods and services and will likely hire a local attorney or accountant and source their supplies from other local small businesses.

The more we have entrepreneurs churning in the economy the better it is for everyone.

Trend: How does the Chamber help with site selection and why is that important?

Hiatt: We have a database of available real estate and buildings. It’s important because companies need a place to put their business. When we have a prospect looking for a 30-acre site with rail access, we can probably find it for them. We do it so often we have a pretty good idea on what’s available but we also have the database that can help us identify sites and buildings for new and expanding businesses.

We also have companies who want to move into a community but they don’t want to build on a site, they want an existing building. That same database allows us to search for specific features the company wants in a space so we can create a package for them. 

Trend: What is the permitting process like in Chattanooga?

Hiatt: We have a really good relationship with the Building Department at the City of Chattanooga. The Chattanooga Land Development Office team is great to work with and assists companies with permit issues in a very proactive manner.

Trend: How is Chattanooga staying green while continuing to expand and attract new businesses?

Hiatt: Companies now are realizing it’s a financial benefit for them to go green. The Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport just announced the third expansion of their solar farm. Through investing and spending the money to build this solar farm they are actually saving money on their power. It’s to the advantage of companies to invest in green initiatives. 

Trend: Are there any new economic development projects in the works?

Hiatt: We have a number of projects we are working on that will be announced soon or in the next couple of months. But nothing we can specifically talk about yet.

Trend: Why does the economic development team target specific industries?

Hiatt: We have a great cluster of food and beverage industries in this town: McKee Foods, Coca-Cola Bottling and Chattanooga Bakery are located in Hamilton County, M&M Mars is located in Cleveland. There is a talent pool of people who have worked at those industries which makes this area attractive to other food and beverage companies.

Being in an area with a lot of food and beverages there are a lot of synergies those companies can take advantage of. They can share vendors and suppliers, for example.

Trend: What’s your favorite thing about your job?

Hiatt: I really enjoy getting to know the companies I work with. I really get to know the people at the companies. It’s great fun making new friends.

Plus, it's very satisfying to be able to help a project succeed that is going to create jobs and create wealth in this community.

Trend: Anything else you’d like to add?

Hiatt: I love helping companies grow here because it boosts the community’s economy which helps our children stay in this community.

I’m very supportive of having a diverse economy as well as a diverse community; I think a diverse community enriches everyone making Chattanooga a better place to live.