Looking Ahead: Covenant in Chattanooga

 Downtown Chattanooga

Downtown Chattanooga

Somewhere in the future, Covenant College hopes to establish a small, satellite campus downtown for students interested in the greater Chattanooga community.

Recently, Dr. Lance Wescher, chair of the Department of Economics & Community Development, invited me to accompany himself and his US Urban Poverty class down to Chattanooga for a field trip to Main Street. He and another Chattanooga native (who preferred not to be mentioned) walked us through the history of that particular street: once known for drugs and prostitution, Main Street has blossomed into a string of favorite restaurants, bakeries and art galleries.

“Fifteen to twenty years ago, nobody went ‘downtown,’” said our tour guide. “Now I hear students wishing they could spend more time downtown and it blows my mind.”

It seems to be a common desire among Covenant students, since most students occasionally feel “trapped” on the mountain. The multitude of coffee houses and restaurants downtown can be a great escape from the piles of homework. Students on the field trip nodded in agreement as their peers voiced various frustrations about not always being able to connect to the Chattanooga community in the way that they would like.

Dr. Wescher has an idea on how to address this.

Six years ago, the idea started in a conversation with Robby Holt, head pastor of  Northshore Fellowship, at breakfast on Main Street. Wescher and Holt were discussing the problem of gentrification, a term in urban planning.

When businesses or wealthier residents move into low-income neighborhoods, there is a trend of increasing property value, which increases the rent payments of the locals, forcing them to move out of the area. This has been happening on East Main.

“A neighborhood once filled with a diverse group of people becomes full of people that all look the same,” said Wescher. There are many ways to combat this and we passed by one small apartment complex that had worked out a solution to keep the neighborhood diverse. A couple bought the whole complex and promised the renters stable rates that wouldn’t increase with the valuable property around them.

“I often think about the verse that says to love your neighbors, and it’s not a problem of me walking down the street and crossing to the other side, it’s that I don’t walk down the streets,” said Wescher. “Chattanooga is Unum, it is the TVA, it is East Lake, it is Lookout Mountain, St. Elmo and all 1,500 people who were evicted from the Superior Creek Lodge—and we need all of those voices to create a vision of community. We want representatives of each of those voices.”

The idea is to set up Covenant students as a catalyst for community conversations: to address the needs of the community and to think about the vision of a future Chattanooga.

Students would live in a facility owned by the Maclellan Foundation, with apartments for the students on the top floor and tenants from the community on the bottom. There would be space for 12-16 students who would spend a summer and a semester living there, similar to studying abroad. It would even count as an intercultural credit.

“We want it to be long enough that actual relationships can be established in the community,” explained Dr. Wescher.

I spoke with Brad Voyles, Dean of Students, concerning the ideas and planning that has already begun to take place. He is part of a committee of senior administration and Dr. Wescher that have been discussing the program and what kind of facilities would be needed.

“It’s an opportunity for students with a particular interest in living and learning downtown with their peers, under the umbrella of Covenant College but learning in a more embedded fashion. The goal is to create an educational opportunity with Covenant DNA without being cut off from community,” said Voyles. “It would be Covenant in Chattanooga. There would be classes on site and the chaplain could visit, maybe once a week. I think Dr. Wescher’s idea is for the students to never have to come to campus,” he said, laughing.

Covenant would hire a program director to live in the facility, to run the program and serve as the RD.

The program is not for a single major like community development.  “We want to recruit students from a variety of disciplines too,” said Dr. Wescher. “We want business majors to look at the community development projects and be able to say, hey, on a practical level this is what finances would be needed. We want English majors to narrate the story, we want teachers and philosophies majors—students from a variety of majors would be encouraged to apply.”

Students would be set up with an internship somewhere downtown and would come back to the housing facility at night.

“It’s very early, of course, we don’t even have blueprints yet. I’m part of a small committee talking through what kind of facilities would be needed. What type of apartments, what kind of common spaces? What spaces would we share with the other tenants of the building and what would be only for Covenant? We would need well lit parking lots and make sure we cover the other security issues,” said Voyles. “We want to be wise without being obtrusive.”