When ℹ McKee Foods moved from Chattanooga to the campus of ℹSouthern Adventist University in 1957, the City of Collegedale didn’t exist. But the owners and employees of the country’s number-one snack cake manufacturer built their own community, and the city was officially incorporated the following year.
Half a century later, what was then mostly farmland is now 12 square miles of suburban neighborhoods and apartment complexes that house the nearly 12,000 people who call Collegedale home. Employees of Volkswagen, Amazon and other international companies have joined McKee’s manufacturing workers, but the city’s leaders still follow O.D. McKee’s number one rule for succeeding in business: “Be adaptable. You can’t grow if you’re not willing to change.”
The nonprofit ℹ Collegedale Tomorrow Foundation was established in 2013 with the goal of developing a comprehensive plan for the greater Collegedale area. Foundation Director David Barto said the intent was to avoid urban sprawl through mindful community growth, and he has worked closely with local leaders, community members and business owners toward that end.
“We knew there was a better way forward with regard to architectural standards and landscape standards. Other cities around the country had figured it out,” Barto explained. “Collegedale had no center. We needed one, but we didn’t need a new courthouse or anything you would traditionally have in a town center.”
With the growing development, Barto said Collegedale’s leaders do not want the community to forget where it began. “Our goal is to establish these historical centers so that as our children grow older, they will not forget the importance of our history. These pieces of history are what defines Collegedale, and they are a legacy that deserves to be preserved.”The Spring House was the first of several projects designed to showcase the history and development of Collegedale. In 2014 the foundation purchased a quarter-acre Preservation Easement at the intersection of Tallant Road and Edgmon Road to preserve the ancient stone house. According to Barto, the current stone structure likely wasn’t the original. “The spring house was more than likely a log building before the stone, and its use would’ve dated back to the Cherokees.”
To complement the historical preservation, the city is adding new construction that meets the community’s needs. ℹ The Commons is the centerpiece―literally and figuratively―of Collegedale’s plan.
The Commons sits on eight acres of land next to Collegedale City Hall. A 27-foot clock tower marks the entrance to the complex, which includes 30,000 square feet of paved, shaded market space surrounding a 25,000-square foot covered pavilion. The first phase opened last November with a holiday market.
Collegedale’s weekly market is an extension of the ℹ Chattanooga Market, which has operated at the ℹ First Tennessee Pavilion since 2001. Over the past 17 years, it has grown into the region’s largest producer-only marketplace and in recent years was named one of the Top Ten Best Public Markets in America by Frommer’s. With these accolades, however, have come record-setting crowds, and the Chattanooga Market is bursting at the seams.“The Commons will showcase the natural beauty of Collegedale with its open green spaces and its event centers,” Barto said. “The open-air farmers market will have room for hundreds of local farmers and artisans to showcase their products.”
“From both a vendor and customer perspective, downtown is very crowded,” said Market Manager Steve Brehm. “We’ll offer the full lineup that people enjoy downtown, and we’ve had lots of new farms apply to participate in Collegedale. There’s plenty of parking on site around City Hall, and anyone with access to the greenway can walk or bike to the market.”
“ℹ The Imagination Station is part of the Commons, and this will be a wonderful destination for families,” he added. “People can bring their kids to play, have dinner, and pick up fresh produce.”
“There’s a Bernie Sanders quote about the big farmers market in Vermont,” Barto explained. “He said it’s not about $5-a-pound organic arugula; it’s about being able to see people and be part of the community. That, to me, is a fundamental part of the Collegedale market—getting folks out of their houses and everyone coming down to the community front porch.”Initially in the spring, the ℹ Collegedale Market will be open the first three weekends in April and will settle in to a Wednesday afternoon/evening Market year one with live entertainment, food trucks, and local vendors. But Barto insists it’s about more than just shopping.
“Anything that starts bringing people together and away from their smartphones and their man caves, that’s good for the fundamental foundation of the community,” he said.
Collegedale resident Jill Howe has lived there since she was a child and remembers one of the major turning points for the community. “Mothers were driving all the way to Signal Mountain for the Imagination Station, and they decided that was crazy—Collegedale should have its own!” she recalled. “I remember when the fundraising was happening. I didn’t even have children then, and my daughter is now 20. It was a phone campaign led by Barbara Hunt and Kathy Hammond, who convinced everyone that it would bring people together. And it did.”
The Imagination Station has gotten so much use that it was renovated several years ago with input from local schoolchildren. The greenway and Veterans Park followed the playground, and the Collegedale Commons is the most recent addition.Howe is now chairman of the Collegedale Tomorrow Foundation board of directors, which was established with the City of Collegedale to preserve properties and to grow and build the city in a way that she said would be difficult otherwise. “We have a long-term vision for the foundation as we partner with the city,” she said.
“I love having the Veterans Park,” Howe said. “I meet my friends there, and we take our dogs walking on the greenway. It’s a wonderful place to bump into your friends and people from all over the community.”
Howe and Barto noted that people come from East Brainerd and Bradley County to use the outdoor spaces, and both are hoping those same people will attend the Collegedale Market. Howe sees additional uses, too: “I would love to see concerts of all kinds, weddings, corporate events, family reunions and of course any kind of community holiday celebrations.”
The Collegedale Tomorrow Foundation is currently raising the final dollars needed to build the Founders Hall, which will be a large, enclosed event venue. The remaining piece of the plan is the concert stage, which Barto said may have some commercial retail space around it. “We’re looking right now into building a combined sound stage and library on the east side that will be 25,000 sq. ft. and three to four stories tall,” he said. It will require a three-to-four-year capital campaign and is estimated to be completed by 2022.
Founders Hall is scheduled to be ready in time for July 4 celebrations. “When I was a girl, the Fourth of July used to happen on Southern’s campus,” Howe recalled. “We would sit on the hill, and there were maybe 400 or 500 people there. Now people are shuttled in, and it really reflects the growth of the community.”
O.D. McKee would be proud.
Photography by Lawson Whitaker