Taking the Long View

Civic innovation and investment will undoubtedly bring challenges and criticisms, but leaders are wise to stay the course.
October 5, 2015 AT 11:00 AM
Volkswagen built its only U.S.-based assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2008. The billion-dollar site employs over 2,000 people. Pictured are cars at the Bug-a-paluza event in Chattanooga. Ricky Rodriguez
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Civic innovation is about placing bets on the future. Much of this work involves two or more partners, each taking risks on each other at inception. It is about taking the long view and staying with the ones who brought you, even when they disappoint you. That disappointment -- coupled with scrutiny from media, regulators and other government overseers -- can give rise to second guessing and recriminations. Those reactions are understandable, and very rarely right.

As the effects of the Volkswagen diesel deception unfold, I am compelled to comment. It might seem like an impulsive trip down a side road, but I was mayor of Chattanooga when we brought Volkswagen manufacturing back to the United States. Accordingly, reporters have asked for my reaction to the debacle. Truthfully, it does offer an opportunity to combine elements common to any discussion of urban development: cities, cars and air pollution.

First, a little context: Chattanooga had its origins as a city of heavy industry. As late as the 1970s, it was often grouped with others of the same kind: Gary, Ind.; Cairo, Ill.; Birmingham, Ala., and the like. Among the polluters belching out toxic fumes was the Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant -- a unique facility located within a 7,000-acre site. Constructed in 1942 to produce TNT for bombs needed for World War II, the plant also produced copious amounts of nitrogen oxides, a pollutant usually associated with the internal combustion engine and directly linked to heavy concentrations of automobiles in urban areas. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the then-new U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted studies in Chattanooga to determine health effects of nitrogen oxides. As a young city planner, my office was charged with conducting surveys of affected neighborhoods. The catalytic converter on today's vehicles is a product of those studies.

In an ironic twist, in 2008 the very same site used to produce over 800 million pounds of TNT for bombs dropped on Germany and its allies became the new headquarters for Volkswagen's only production facility in the United States. Setting an example for engineering excellence, from 2008 to 2010 Volkswagen designed and built a world-class environmentally sensitive automobile plant. It was Platinum LEED certified and surrounded by a pristine 3,000-acre nature park. Today, to carry the irony a step further, Volkswagen finds itself embroiled in a controversy over measurements of a pollutant generated by some of its diesel-powered vehicles. It's a pollutant familiar to Chattanooga and the old Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant: nitrogen oxides.

Volkswagen’s reputation is on the line and the company's stock has fallen. Major changes in leadership and investigations are underway. Lawyers are preparing for long and expensive battles. In true media hype, no exaggerated claim seems too outrageous. In Chattanooga, local pundits are predicting doom and gloom and suggesting we search for another auto company. Critics of the original deal that brought Volkswagen to Chattanooga are asking me, "Aren't you ashamed of granting all those incentives seeing how things have turned out?"

The short answer is no. I'm not ashamed we worked hard to successfully attract Volkswagen, and as for “how things have turned out,” I prefer to wait and see.

What's most surprising to me is the media professionals who seem so ready to rush to judgment. One business columnist of a major national newspaper called me for a reaction. In our conversation it became clear he had already written his piece (at least in his head) and really was looking for facts or "fact-like" sound bites to back up his preconceived conclusion. He assumed the situation would seriously affect production at the Chattanooga plant. He seemed disappointed when I told him the majority of vehicles manufactured in Chattanooga -- approximately 75 percent -- are gasoline powered, not diesel, and therefore would not be an issue.

Quite possibly there is no other city with a stronger resume in successfully dealing with industrial air pollution. From its “dirtiest city in America” days in the late 1960s to a shining example of environmental recovery, Chattanooga has become a model for other industrial communities. We do not take this position lightly. And few companies have a more interesting or compelling history than Volkswagen. I remain an unabashed and unrepentant supporter and advocate for the brand. When recruiting the company to invest in Chattanooga, I enjoyed telling their leadership I did not consider Volkswagen to be a foreign car -- and proudly showed them the fading old pictures of my VW Bus and VW Bug, which were our young family's sole means of transportation back in the 1970s.

I do not condone environmental wrongdoings, but I have learned through my almost 70 years on earth to wait for the whole story. I'm still betting on Volkswagen and confident they will make things right. I've been to VW headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, many times and I’ve toured the giant plant with over 40,000 employees that traces its history to the Third Reich and the origins of its design to Henry Ford's River Rouge complex in Detroit. I've seen the holes in the roof made by allied bombs, some perhaps bearing explosives produced in Chattanooga. Only once was I taken on a tour of the sad and spiritually wrenching museum located in the bowels of the plant. There I was shown by tearful guides where slave laborers toiled during some of the company's and the world’s darkest times.

Without question, the current situation is shocking and serious. But I’ve lived and worked in my city as the smoke and smog slowly cleared and I know the dramatic story of Volkswagen as it rose from the ashes of World War II to become the largest automobile manufacturer in the world. Our histories and our destinies are uniquely linked -- at least in the United States.

Building their billion-dollar plant was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and a compressed education in cross-cultural negotiation and diplomacy. While the current situation is certainly disappointing, I'm betting the solution will lead to even better engine designs and an even stronger commitment to the environment. And as the story plays out in the competitive arena of the auto industry, that will mean cleaner transportation and a higher quality of life for cities everywhere.

In the meantime, I'm waiting. Maybe that is a luxury that comes only in retrospect. Challenges and criticisms when you are in the middle of creating something new can be far more distracting, and could threaten to derail nascent initiatives because the urgency of the moment can shift our focus away from the long-term potential. Even when you know you've done the right things the right way, there can (and probably will) be times you feel under siege. Be emboldened by the words of a World War II figure who stared down an existential threat to his country, which is orders of magnitude bigger than what you are up against. Winston Churchill prophetically reminds us, “Never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”

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