Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) first director, David Lilienthal, handed a check to Wendell Willkie, the president of the privately owned Commonwealth & Southern Corp. He was joined by R. L. Wilhoit, chairman of the board of EPB.
Four years earlier, the citizens of Chattanooga voted 2-1 in favor of public power. Willkie had finally come to an agreement in selling the electric properties of the Tennessee Electric Power Company (TEPCO), thus providing EPB with customers, and the distribution system it would grow to serve a 600 Square-Mile service area with low-cost power from TVA.
Public vs. private ownership was debated in dramatic fashion, and finally put to a public vote on March 12th, 1935. Over 19,000 citizens of Chattanooga voted FOR and just over 8,000 against providing for the sale of bonds to finance the acquisition of a municipal power distribution system which would then sell TVA power.
A steady stream of opposition advertisements flowed in the weeks leading up to the public vote. Most targeted fears of potential higher taxes and foretold even more ominous financial burdens of a failure in public power.
Other ads stated "Don't vote for a taxable bond issue - That will give your landlord an excuse to raise your rent!"
The pro public power campaigns focused on how and when to vote, and underscored the positive outcomes of public power, especially so with the pending completion of the TVA Chickamauga Dam just a few years away. "Vote for Public Power and You Vote for CHICKAMAUGA DAM".
George Fort Milton Jr.
Steadfast promoter of public power and the loss of his newspaper,
The Chattanooga News.
"On Saturday, December 16, 1939, the News published its last edition after fifty-two years of continuous publication as one of the most respected papers in the South.
At 3:23 P.M., Milton walked to the great Web press, quietly shaking hands with the workers in the various departments. When the pressmen gave the signal, Milton pushed the button to kill the 'run' at 19,000.
Milton took the last issue and walked silently away."
To fully appreciate the unique events that lead to the creation of EPB, one must understand the legacy of TVA, created under President Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ to modernize one of the nation’s most impoverished regions – The Tennessee Valley. The same areas contained geography ideal for development of hydroelectric power and much needed flood control.
By the 1930s, electric power was commonly available, but limited to densely populated areas. Those outside cities such as farming communities were left out as the privately held companies had no immediate plans to service rural areas. Operating costs wouldn’t produce enough potential profits. Private investors also had no incentive to add costs of designing dams for flood control.
TVA joined with municipalities and cooperatives in purchasing the facilities of privately owned electric-utility companies in the region. EPB is one of 154 served by TVA, and remains one of the largest publicly owned electric power distributors in the country.
"Despite the successes of the TVA and its popularity in the South, it was an experiment that would not be repeated elsewhere in the United States. Its creation in the 1930s was the product of historical currents that converged at that time and place and would never unite again."
Just as rural areas were not widely served by private electric power interests in the 1930s, today broadband internet has been underserved in less populated areas by large national companies.
EPB’s mission as a public utility includes addressing the institutional barriers that maintain the “digital divide”—the gap between those who have internet access and those who do not. In 2010, the New York Times reported EPB and Chattanooga an unlikely challenger in the race to offer the fastest internet service. “This makes Chattanooga — a midsized city in the South — one of the leading cities in the world in its digital capabilities.” – 2011, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield
"EPB would again succeed in the face of strong opposition in its development of a fiber-optics smart-grid, becoming the first company to offer internet access speeds of 1 gigabit per second to customers. Data show that the savings produced by the smart grid, plus revenue from access fees paid by the utility’s internet access business, more than cover the capital and operating costs of the smart grid."
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