By Kate Harrison
Ted Rogers remembers riding his bike down rural Apison Pike through Collegedale as a boy, heading to the Trading Post to buy candy. The town center known as Four Corners was just a couple of businesses and didn’t have a stoplight.
Rogers is now Collegedale’s city manager and drives down the same street to get to work, but it’s clustered with restaurants, banks, gas stations and shops. And that’s just the beginning. “We are in the middle of some pretty incredible growth in Collegedale, and we’re only on the cusp,” he said.
Collegedale is still — relatively speaking — a small town: Just 8 square miles and 8,200 residents, according to the most recent U.S. census. But with its population spiking 27 percent since 2000, Collegedale is the fastest-growing city in Hamilton County and one of the quickest-growing in the state.
But its rapid growth over the past decade doesn’t even take into account the activity in the city since the Volkswagen plant and Amazon facilities at nearby Enterprise South industrial park became fully operational. "I consider these census figures already out of date for Collegedale," said Kelly Martin, who in an act of foresight was hired as the town's strategic planner last year.
In rolling fields along Little Debbie Parkway, the most recent sign of growth is beginning to take shape: a $19 million, 278-unit luxury apartment complex called Integrity Hills that is expected to be complete in early 2013. Work on another 246-unit complex on Apison Pike will begin in the upcoming weeks, Rogers said.
And those come after the $100 million development of retirement community Greenbriar
Cove. “While the majority of us would like to keep our quaint, small-town feel, we fully recognize and accept that growth is coming,” Mayor John Turner said. “But we’re trying to keep our small-town mindset.”
Many factors have aligned to make Collegedale the magnet it is becoming, explains Rogers. The town has had steady employers in the Collegedale-based Southern Adventist University — owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church — and McKee Foods, producers of Little Debbie Snacks. Both fared well in the recession.
But with the arrival of Volkswagen, the city literally found itself at a crossroads — adjacent to Enterprise South and the growing number of employers in the vicinity, making it a nearby and attractive place for those employees to live. The city is known for some of the best schools in the Chattanooga area and has one of the lowest property tax rates in the county. It also has its own municipal airport.
There is a lot of property — and potential — for more businesses to serve the growing population. “Collegedale is on retailers’ radar screens because we have a relatively affluent population that is largely underserved in certain retail markets,” said Martin.
Pilar Albernas, who in 2011 opened Ají Peruvian Restaurant on Ooltewah-Ringgold Road with her family, said she’s pleased with how the restaurant’s opening has been timed with such development. “With all the construction here, it’s growing every day,” Albernas said.
Besides growing in population, Collegedale also has grown in physical size. The city has annexed outlying property within the urban growth boundary designated by Hamilton County and is continuing to move forward in that process. The growth has led to a new crop of headaches, including concerns about public safety — growing the town’s police force was a hot topic in this year’s budget hearings — and outgrown infrastructure.
Strategic Growth
More roads — and bigger roads — are leading to Collegedale. A new exit off Interstate 75 linked Collegedale straight to the highway, and the Tennessee Department of Transportation is about to start widening Apison Pike to a five-lane road and rerouting a new connection with East Brainerd Road. With these expansions, Rogers and Martin say more roadside businesses and retailers are inevitable.
“I see that really breaking loose in the next 18 months,” said Martin. But “breaking loose,” doesn’t mean uncontrolled growth, city leaders emphasize. Over the last several years, commissioners have passed development ordinances bent on promoting an ideal Rogers calls “attractive constraint.” The goal is to keep businesses and apartment complexes from being “monolithic,” “barenaked-brick” and “an incoherent mish-mash” of buildings — just several of the terms city leaders used to describe what they want to avoid.
Buildings are to be constructed with a variety of quality materials and architectural offsets that are naturally pleasing to the eye. Landscaping ordinances call for greenery to soften corners, hide heating and air conditioning units and provide a buffer between properties. Parking lots need curbs. Ideally, all signs will be monument-styled with brick, cement and stone.
“It gives us the opportunity to have planned growth. Not restricted growth, but with zoning and sign ordinances and design standards. We’re raising the bar, asking them to make an investment,” said Turner.
These ordinances have provided a gateway for the luxury apartment complexes and more upscale businesses, Rogers says. “It essentially provides owners with shared property value protection,” Rogers explains. “People are willing to make a business look nicer if they know the one next to them will put in the same effort.”
Adventist Influence
More influential than strategic zoning and sign ordinances, Collegedale’s character has been largely defined by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “Collegedale started as an Adventist community. I think it’s fair to say it’s been rather influential in terms of the attractiveness of the area,” said City Commissioner Larry Hanson, an Adventist who retired from a long professorship at Southern Adventist University.
The town draws its name from the school, which moved there in 1916. The fibers of Adventist values have been woven into the community in many other such prominent and more subtle ways. Hanson said an Adventist mentality of stewardship and “looking after each other” has led to a community of good neighbors, with the creation of the nonprofit Samaritan Center and other church-related ministries.
O.D. and Ruth McKee — who began McKee Foods — met when the university was still Southern Junior College. A long list of commissioners have identified themselves as Adventists. And the university has made a big impact on the city’s arts scene. It is home to the area’s only classical music station, WSMC-FM, and has spurred the creation of the Eastern Tennessee Symphony Orchestra.
Local businesses have learned to cater to the beliefs of its large population of Adventists, who do not work on Saturdays. Many abstain from alcohol and from meat.
“We’re spoiled by the restaurants here,” laughs Lucas Patterson, editorial manager for the university, who said that many restaurants like Rafael’s Pizzeria offer specialty toppings and foods for their Adventist customers.
“We went to a sub shop in Chattanooga the other day and my sons asked what kind of ‘fake meat’ they had,” Patterson sad. “I just say, ‘You’ll have to forgive my children; they’re from Collegedale.’ That’s the reference point.”
But as more people unaffiliated with the Adventist faith move into the city, some of that direct influence is being diluted. Hanson estimates that less than 50 percent of the Collegedale population is now Adventist. More businesses are open on Saturdays, and the city has recently become much more alcohol-friendly. Voters approved a controversial liquor-by-the drink referendum allowing restaurants to serve alcohol, and just last month overturned a ban that erased any distance specifications between churches and businesses that sell alcohol.
Vinita Sauder, the vice president of Southern who has lived in Collegedale for 25 years, said that while changes in the alcohol rules have upset some residents, it hasn’t led to conflict. “It’s part of adaptation. As the city matures and businesses move in, we can adjust,” she said. “Obviously we’d prefer to be a dry city, but we’re not the only tenant in town.” As the city grows, mutual collaboration is “stronger than ever,” Sauder said. “We’re growing together. We have healthy businesses, healthy university, and a healthy city.”
Kate Harrison is a staff writer for the Times-Free Press. This article is republished by Adventist Today with permission of the Times-Free Press. More information at