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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, October 2, 2020

No off switch for Lamp Post CEO




Tiffanie Robinson’s day began with a quiet workout before her family and the world outside their East Chattanooga home started to stir.

She then proceeded to her office in Loveman’s On Market, where she serves as CEO of Lamp Post Properties.

There, Robinson spent her morning gazing into a crystal ball. Made of deep rivers of data rather than magic, she was hoping to see what the future of commercial real estate looks like in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

After an hourlong Zoom conference and then an in-person meeting during which she wore a mask, Robinson says she’s feeling the strain of working in a world that’s adjusted to the realities of COVID-19.

“My brain feels fried,” she confesses. “Zoom is exhausting.”

Robinson’s mental fatigue informs her thoughts about where commercial real estate is headed almost as much as the data she’s seeing.

“Office is not going to disappear,” she contends. “People want to be together. They need to be together to interact and learn from each other and solve problems.”

Besides, Robinson adds, the home environment is not conducive to productivity. “I can’t work from home,” she laughs. “I’m just going to do my laundry.”

As the spearhead of a real estate company that transforms historic Chattanooga buildings like Yesterday’s into active spaces like The Tomorrow Building, Robinson has a motive for talking up the future of commercial real estate. But she refuses to paint a rosy picture she says misrepresents what lies ahead.

“Office is not going to disappear,” she repeats, “but it’s not going to look the same, either. Anyone who believes that is lying to themselves.”

Robinson says she believes the data she’s seeing suggests the sprawling offices of yesterday are going to decline for the foreseeable future as companies shrink their footprint and split their workforces between people who can be productive at home (laundry or not) and those who need to be in the office, interfacing with others.

As a result, she says, landlords are going to have to be creative with their spaces, and downtown Chattanooga is going to have to adjust to a lower level of activity.

“We’re in the midst of a big shift,” she adds. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing; I think it’s a good thing.”

School board

Despite her Zoom fatigue, Robinson seems to have enough energy to power a pre-pandemic downtown Chattanooga on her own. Her tremendous vitality – manifested in her rapid-fire speech – sustains her through long days that include not just her work at Lamp Post Properties but also her responsibilities as a member of the school board in Hamilton County.

After running unopposed in August, Robinson is beginning a second four-year term as the representative of District 4, which includes 14 schools between Alton Park and Highway 58.

She first ran for a seat on the school board in 2016 as a concerned parent and member of the community. Spurred by negative comments about the quality of Hamilton County’s public schools, Robinson says she wanted to help solve the problems rather than gripe about them.

“I grew up in a great public school system,” she recalls. “If the schools I attended hadn’t been as great as they were, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. So, it bothered me that no one could seem to figure out how to move our public schools forward.”

As Robinson assessed District 4 before the 2016 election, she noted that it contained not only the lowest performing schools in Chattanooga but also the city’s biggest pockets of poverty. This cemented her resolve to provide the area with a fervent advocate.

Despite her passion, Robinson was told she would lose due to her being a young, white woman running in a largely Black district.

But after 100 days of knocking on doors and making phone calls, she won – by 54 votes out of about 5,000. “It’s crazy how you can do all that work and barely win,” she acknowledges.

Robinson began her first term in the wake of the Woodmore bus accident in November 2016, which provided her and the rest of the board members with a heartbreaking tragedy to weather and a piercing moment of clarity.

“We had to admit there were equity problems with how we were transporting our children,” she says. “We realized there were issues with the caliber of our drivers and how much we were paying them.

“We weren’t giving them the resources they needed, and as a result, our children were receiving bottom-of-the-barrel transportation.”

Robinson, who had been at the hospital as parents were learning their children had died in the crash, resolved to not only do her part to take on these issues but also make good on her campaign promises. These included tackling what she claims was a broken budget and helping to locate and hire a superior superintendent.

Robinson wound up chairing the finance committee her first year on the board and advocating for student-based budgeting, which allocates funds to where they will have the greatest impact.

“I felt like the budget needed a different development process,” she explains. “I pushed for student-based budgeting, which focuses on the lowest performing schools and the schools with the biggest financial gaps.”

The board ultimately adopted the approach. Robinson says this, along with the board’s selection of Dr. Bryan Johnson as superintendent, have helped to move the district forward.

“In 2016, Hamilton County was the lowest performing district in the state,” Robinson notes. “We’re now considered the fastest improving district in the state.”

Bolstered by the district’s recent successes, Robinson is eager to begin her new term, which she says will be her last. Once again, the board is facing several knotty issues, including dealing with nearly $1 billion in facility problems and pushing for more funding.

“The 2021-22 budget cycle is going to be rough because we rely on sales tax, but it’s time to build on the work we’ve done over the last four years.”

Florida transplant

Before Robinson was a CEO or on the school board, she was an 18-year-old leaving Plant City, Florida, to attend Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, sight unseen.

A theater scholarship paved the way. “I didn’t visit Lee first; I just packed my car and moved,” she remembers. “I was the girl who was like, ‘Get me out of here.’”

Armed with degrees in communications and theater, Robinson utilized her education at a series of jobs, including working in advertising at Life Care Centers of America, doing marketing for Ken Smith Auto Parts and managing large scale affairs across the U.S. for LEO Events.

“That was a lifetime ago,” she says of her days at LEO. “Jimmy John’s wouldn’t even deliver on Main Street because of how rough it was.”

During this stretch of time, Robinson saw a wave of investments spark a renaissance in Chattanooga. The vitalization of the downtown area drew her to a position with economic developer River City Company in 2011.

As River City’s director of downtown branding, Robinson conceived and deployed several programs designed to further the progress being made and animate underused pockets of the city.

Her favorite endeavor was Project Pop-Up, which filled a long-dormant strip of Chestnut Street with small businesses and provided the owners with one year of free rent and marketing support. The effort was a success, and a few years later, the DeFoor brothers purchased the space and continued the transformation.

Robinson also dipped her toes into talent recruitment while with River City. This interest led her to switch to venture capital incubator Lamp Post Group in 2013 to launch Waypaver, an internal business that recruited talent to local tech companies.

After serving as chief operating officer of Lamp Post Group for two years, Robinson became the CEO of Lamp Post Properties, which Lamp Post Group launched in 2015 to purchase and rehabilitate historical buildings.

Under her leadership, Lamp Post Properties converted Yesterday’s into The Tomorrow Building, a co-living concept with furnished microunits and shared common spaces.

During this time, Lamp Post Group also purchased and renovated the SmartBank building, filled an old county structure at the corner of Walnut and Seventh Avenue with offices, gave the former home of Cooper’s Office Supply on Cherry Street a makeover and turned a car dealership into Chattanooga Whiskey.

Robinson also oversaw the launch of Second Story Property Management, an offshoot of Lamp Post Properties.

This level of activity continues as Lamp Post Properties prepares to take the co-living concept to another market, among other projects, making Robinson’s quiet morning workout one of the most important parts of her day. She says it helps her to focus and energizes her for the day ahead.

At the end of each workday, Robinson returns to her East Chattanooga home, where she’s sharing her life with her husband, Mike, and their three sons, who are 9, 5 and 1.

As the co-founder of Proof, a food and beverage incubator, Mike also has a demanding career. But Robinson and her husband have found ways to shoulder the challenge of balancing family and work by employing a tag team approach to parenting.

“We go through seasons of one of us needing to concentrate more than usual on work. There have been periods when Mike has needed to be laser focused on his job and I carried the backend of the family side, and there have been times when I needed to be laser focused, like when I ran for office.

“He said, ‘It’s only 100 days. I can handle it for 100 days.’”

With no room for anything else, Robinson spends what qualifies as her leisure time doing whatever her sons want to do. Lately, her 9-year-old has been roping her into playing “Mario Kart” and performing “Just Dance” routines on their Nintendo Switch.

There is no off switch in Robinson’s life, but she says she and her husband lean on family (Robinson says she has an “awesome” mother-in-law), their community of friends and the schools their children attend for help.

It’s an intense existence, Robinson says, but also satisfying.

“We work a lot, but we’re doing things we believe will impact our family and community,” she says, her rapid-fire speech still running full throttle. “You get only one life.”