By John Cooper
Nashville Mayoral Candidate
Nashville has focused on one half of the growth equation: buildings and economic incentives. Measuring by the number of cranes you’ll spot downtown on any given day, we are doing well by that measure. Economic growth and tourism has created a bustling downtown that attracts people and businesses from around the world.
We should celebrate that! But how are Nashville’s residents doing? It is time to assess how all this growth has served us. It is clear that access to affordable housing is a concern across the city, as is transportation, public safety, and education. Growth has costs and people are feeling left behind. Without a course adjustment, we risk leaving our neighbors further behind.
Nashville does not have a great track record of treating those on the lowest end of the economic spectrum well. Our city ranks poorly on intergenerational mobility, which is a measure of the percentage of those born into the bottom 20 percent of incomes make it to the top 20 percent. And our urban core is surrounded by the federally designated Promise Zone to the north, east, and south. The Promise Zone is made up of areas where poverty is concentrated; unemployment is high, educational attainment is lower than other areas of the city, residents are geographically isolated from healthy food options and employment opportunities, and violent crimes are more likely to occur. While many residents are within only a few miles of our bustling downtown, they have not been able to benefit from the city’s growth.
The last chapter of Nashville’s economic development story was focused on downtown development and tourism. It is time to turn the page to a new chapter of economic and community development, where we emphasize growing human capital and focusing on the neglected neighborhoods of Davidson County. As your mayor, I will make sure that the Mayor’s Office of Economic & Community Development emphasizes that community development mission, and not just growth at any cost.
Here are some of my ideas on how to make Nashville a city that truly works for everyone:
Economic Development through Human Capital. Recruiting highly skilled talent from elsewhere is good, but we need to prioritize developing the talent already here. Nashville looks inexpensive to those relocating from the coasts, but we are becoming increasingly unaffordable for those who have been here. As mayor, I will commit to further developing the human capital of Nashville’s residents and will prioritize education and workforce training as mayor.
Leverage Existing Resources. There are lots of opportunities to leverage existing resources. For instance, Tennessee is the only state where adults can attend community college or a Tennessee College of Applied Technology tuition-free. The Lumina Foundation has designated Nashville as a Talent Hub, investing money in our city’s workforce development efforts. Organizations like the Nashville Technology Council provide apprentice programs for those interested in a career in Nashville’s growing technology field. Nonprofits are working to connect displaced workers with new careers. Many people and organizations are playing a role in connecting residents to opportunities. This work could go further and be more impactful with sustained leadership from the Mayor’s Office and further investment where necessary.
Invest in Small Businesses. It is critical that Nashville remains a place where small businesses open, grow, and flourish. I worry about how the escalating costs in this city inhibit the ability of locally-owned businesses to survive. As an example, this summer Flatrock Coffee on Nolensville Road was forced to close their doors due to rent increases. Sadly, their story is not unique. Metro Government has handed out many large incentive deals to big businesses wanting to relocate here, but what about helping grow small businesses that are already here? Without programs that make it possible for small businesses to continue, we risk losing the foundation of what makes our city and neighborhoods unique. We should do more to target incentives to help entrepreneurs start and grow businesses here.
Use Economic Incentives to Increase Quality of Life. Metro has overused tax increment financing (TIF) to incentivize luxury condos and hotels downtown. Metro has heavily used the tool downtown, but TIF can be used to bring benefits to neglected parts of our community. In a previous era, TIF was used to help bring Kroger to Monroe Street in North Nashville. We should explore using TIF to bring grocery stores to food deserts. Economic incentives have their place, and that is creating livable neighborhoods and spreading prosperity and opportunity across our large county.
Infrastructure. Building out high quality infrastructure is one of the best ways to foster good growth. Our sewer and stormwater systems, roads, sidewalks and intersections are key components of economic and community development. Nashville is going to grow more in the next five years than in the past five years, so we have to get this next phase right. That requires targeted investments in neighborhoods that haven’t seen meaningful investment in generations. An area like Bordeaux is going to keep growing, but the quality and community impact of that growth will depend on the quality of the underlying infrastructure. A neighborhood like the Nations is already well into its boom, but the stormwater and sidewalk infrastructure has lagged behind. Neighborhoods need investment.
It is my goal to make Nashville a city that works for everyone. As mayor, I will make sure that our city invests in human capital and infrastructure so every neighborhood has the opportunity to thrive.