Chattanooga offers the fastest Internet connections in America along fiber-optic links stringing out from a revitalized downtown.

But urban planners taking part last week in the Vanguard Next City conference still found physical and economic barriers separating the central city and its Gig technology with nearby neighborhoods, especially the Westside.

“We all were struck by how amazing Chattanooga is as a clean and livable city with a vibrant downtown, but when we walked only a few blocks to the Westside, it was really disconnected from most of the renaissance we saw in the rest of downtown,” said Sarah Ray, a McKinsey & Co. associate from Washington, D.C., who was among more than 40 urban leaders attending the three-day conference.

The barriers are both physical and economic.

To get to nearby businesses and jobs, many of those living in the College Hill Courts public housing project cut through a chained-link fence and walked through a field to cross U.S. Highway 27 and connect with downtown.

And many Westside residents can’t afford Chattanooga’s superfast Internet.

But that could change if the city implements the winning suggestions from the Chattanooga Challenge that ended the fifth annual Next City conference on Saturday.

A team of government and civic leaders from across the country suggested that Chattanooga offer free Wi-Fi service to College Hill Courts to bridge the digital divide and develop a new pathway to connect downtown and the neighborhood.

“There are other ways to drive into College Hill Courts, but this path was the one of least resistance, and we felt like it should be validated,” said Marlon Brown, a city councilman from Mason, Mich. “We felt like the city should embrace this connection, give the community some additional pride and recognize that this community is connected to the rest of the city.”

Although College Hill Courts is scheduled to be phased out, the urban experts still thought that it should have free Wi-Fi in the near term to help those residents take advantage of gigabyte-per-second Internet service through EPB.

“There is a lot of uncertainty and distrust in this community, and we felt it is vital to do more to connect these residents with the Gig City and the rest of Chattanooga,” Ray said.

The Chattanooga Challenge was a first in the five-year history of Next City, a nonprofit group that tries to promote innovative approaches to improving the economy and ecology of cities.

The conference is an annual experiential gathering of 40 of the best and brightest urban leaders under age 40. Chattanooga was chosen because of its industrial transformation, revitalized downtown and its hyperfast Internet service.

During the conference, urban leaders toured Chattanooga on bike, buses and on foot to see how to learn about ways to make urban areas more vibrant, livable and connected.

As the winning idea Saturday from among four competing proposals, the Westside suggestions will get a $10,000 boost from the local Footprint Foundation. Each group suggested that Chattanooga do more to reach out to neighborhoods near downtown and find ways to help local residents develop projects and programs.

The recommendations for the Westside were endorsed by members of Mayor Andy Berke’s Forward Task Force who judged competing ideas for connecting the city. Causeway, an online network for local donations of time and talent, will pursue how to best implement the ideas, Causeway Executive Director Abby Garrison said.

“Chattanooga really is an example of cities that most often make the most progress when they take ownership of their place and find the best way forward,” she said.

“At Causeway, we really do believe that all challenges do have a solution out there, and we want to help make that happen.”

©2014 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)