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VOL. 40 | NO. 31 | Friday, July 29, 2016

Barry gets high marks for first year on the job

By Sam Stockard

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-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

Not yet a year into her first term, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry is standing shoulder to shoulder with Metro Nashville Police and the black community in an effort to avert disaster.

“The heart wrenching tragedies in Dallas, Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights were painful to experience as a mayor, as a mother, as an American,” Barry says. “But they have served to sharpen our focus and bring sometimes uncomfortable issues to the forefront of our national conversation.”

It’s a situation unexpected a year ago during the mayoral race when the biggest questions were how to solve traffic congestion and whether to invest in downtown Nashville or update water and sewer infrastructure.

Considering Nashville and Middle Tennessee have avoided the types of incidents roiling the nation, Barry could put on blinders and limit her focus to economic development and even mass transit.

Instead, she’s entering the fray with events designed to bring people together to talk about race relations and criminal justice in Nashville through a partnership with Lipscomb University’s College of Leadership and Public Service.

The first was held recently at Pearl-Cohn High School and another set for Sept. 10 at the Music City Center, a public conversation on race, equity and leadership.

“These meetings will not be a starting line or a finish line in our goal of racial and social justice in our city and in our society. This is, unfortunately, a long race for our country to run and, frankly, it’s hard to see the finish line,” Barry says.

“But we can’t stop running this race. We can always be moving ahead, one yard, one inch at a time, as we seek the goal of a more just and equitable society for all.”

Barry also sent a criminal justice delegation to Oakland, California, to learn how to restore justice to people who’ve been harmed.

Metro Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson is already working on reform with training for new recruits to cut down on bias and keep incidents from escalating. Veteran officers will be trained as well to ensure weapons and physical force are used as a last resort in tense situations.

Police officers attended hundreds of community meetings in 2015 to build relationships with residents, and the Metro Human Relations Commission will start introducing new recruits to the wide array of Davidson County communities they will be serving.

In addition, with the police ranks composed of only 15 percent black officers in a city whose population is about 28 percent black, Metro’s chief diversity officer will set up a plan to encourage diversity in hiring at the police department and across Metro departments.

Barry’s willingness to attack the problem is catching people’s attention.

“She also has shown a lot of judgment and poise kind of navigating some very difficult or sensitive issues from around the country that have kind of made their way into Nashville, with some of the sort of racially driven issues, issues related to the police department, the gun violence,” says Dave Cooley, a political consultant with Cooley Public Strategies.

Barry displays a level-headedness in working with Chief Anderson and other Metro leaders to ensure Nashville doesn’t become another Ferguson, Missouri or other cities “that have really fallen into some terrible situations,” he adds.

While Black Lives Matter protesters swarmed the Metro Square and caused a shutdown of West End Avenue after shooting incidents across the nation, Barry and Anderson worked to ensure violence didn’t erupt.

The mayor’s office reached out to Black Lives Matter to see if the group needed anything before the downtown protest, but it already had its own security plan in effect, according to Joshua Crutchfield, an MTSU student who spoke that night.

And even though a Black Lives Matter group criticized police and protested outside the recent Lipscomb event, according to reports, their actions don’t quite reflect feelings citywide about Barry’s performance.

Nashville’s black community “accepts” and “believes in” Mayor Barry, says Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church Pastor James Thomas.

“She’s been a go-getter ever since I’ve known her. I think she won our community because we believed she was going to do what she said she was going to do,” Thomas adds.

“It may be a little rough because the times are rough now. She’s tried to deal with the hurt around our country and the city, protecting this city. We’re fortunate to have a good chief (Anderson). … The community trusts him. And they trust her.”

Current events are quite different than those in the 1960s when students were attacked during efforts to desegregate Nashville’s lunch counters, Thomas adds.

“When we marched, we had no police protection. This group has protection and the law on their side,” Thomas notes. “(Barry) has been working. She got some community folks together to work with her and talk with these groups, and they’re going to be working together.”

Spreading the wealth

The biggest question surrounding Barry during the 2015 mayoral race was whether she would continue putting most of the government’s emphasis on downtown Nashville or start looking to outlying areas.

During a recent Metro Night Out event, one of a series of events designed to take government leaders to the people, she told Donelson residents about $6 million for a library to replace the community’s 50-year-old building. It’s part of a $475 million capital spending plan approved by the Metro Council for fiscal 2016-17.

Metro’s $2 billion operating budget, a city record bolstered by strong revenue, also includes money to keep the Old Hickory Community Center open for additional hours on Saturday, one of the few facilities its size in Davidson County to be open on the weekend.

In addition, Barry told the group, a parks and greenways master plan is under way, in part to determine how to use 600 acres Metro acquired along the Stones River. Metro is working on a transit plan and sidewalks and bicycle lane master plan as well.

Ask residents at the Two Rivers Middle School event about Barry’s performance in her first year, and they say, “So far, so good.”

Even Donelson resident Don Armistead, who thought Nashville property management magnate Bill Freeman would make a better mayor because of his experience, refuses to bad-mouth her.

“She won fair and square, and I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt,” he says.

Two areas in need of improvement are the Farmers Market, which Armistead says has gotten away from its roots, and downtown parking, which is too expensive for Nashvillians to enjoy some of the restaurants in the heart of the city.

RockStar Realty agent and Donelson resident Patty Olstad says Barry is “doing very well” as mayor, though she says it’s too soon to tell whether areas outside downtown Nashville will benefit from the city’s rise.

“She has a lot of opportunities to meet with different people, and you can tell she’s making an effort to really get involved in all the different communities, and I think she stays on top of the issues,” Olstad adds.

And while she is glad to hear about funding for a Donelson library, her concerns lie with traffic and growth, including the lack of development opportunities in Donelson. She hopes Metro planning officials can look at more zoning options to increase density.

Hermitage resident Edna Hatcher is more complimentary of Barry, saying from her perspective, “she’s looking out for the people rather than trying to make Nashville famous.”

“She’s looking for affordable housing and schools and sidewalks. She’s looking out for the people that live here, and that’s important because sometimes the city grows and forgets about the working, everyday people,” Hatcher says.

Barry’s budget, which fairly flew through the Metro Council, was bolstered by a revenue increase of $121 million. Much of that comes through tourism and development, and Barry points out downtown Nashville has 26 cranes in the air, possibly 27, all monitored through a local website each day. The investment in the last year alone is $3.6 billion from those developments.

“I think you see that great economy for Nashville because we’ve had great government, and that comes with my predecessors and I hope to continue that,” she says.

Metro Councilman Bob Mendes notes Barry’s administration got a big boost by increased revenue.

“That’s a lot of love to spread around, and I think that it would be hard to accuse her administration of just focusing it in one part of town,” he says. “I think they’ve done a pretty good job of trying to make sure that the revenue increase in the city gets spent all across the county.”

In Madison, for instance, an area some see as the next area to replicate East Nashville’s economic boom, Metro Council approved $6 million for the acquisition of the right of way for Neely’s Bend extension and funding for nearby Pennington Elementary School renovations, part of a $150 million investment in Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Indeed, few people are willing to criticize the first-year mayor. One of her only missteps so far is a tiff with Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall over a mayor’s office organizational chart that placed him under the mayor even though he answers only to voters as a constitutional officer. Barry says she apologized over lunch, and they’ve move on.

The budget also includes $20 million for a sheriff’s administrative office building and $20 million to complete Criminal Justice Center reconstruction downtown.

Housing matters

Davidson County efforts requiring new developments to include affordable units for lower-income residents ran into opposition from the Republican-dominated state Legislature in 2016, led mainly by Williamson County lawmakers.

Barry opted for another proposal amid increasing concern about rising property values in Nashville and the possibility that replacement of older houses could make it nearly impossible for average residents to afford to live in the city.

The mayor rolled out a program in mid-July designed to give developers incentives to build affordable and workforce housing as part of a pilot program for new construction and existing structures.

“We want to target this growth in the urban core, which has seen the greatest impact of soaring housing prices in recent years, as well as along our pikes and corridors, which are targeted for mass transit options now and in the future,” she says.

Barry’s budget also includes a $10 million injection for the Barnes Housing Trust Fund, increasing it to $16 million with the promise of more money each year for developers to tap.

Along with that effort, Metro inked a deal with Elmington Capital Group to build 138 affordable units on government property at 12th and Wedgewood, complementing construction on vacant city-owned lots by non-profit developers to provide affordable housing.

As part of the new initiative, developers could receive grants from Metro by putting up homes for people making 60 percent of the median household income, $60,074 for a family of four, and for workforce housing, which is designated at 61 to 120 percent of the median household income.

Mendes says Barry is definitely not “nibbling at the edges” with her affordable housing proposals.

“I think she’s done more on affordable housing in her 10 months in office than has ever been done before. Putting $10 million into the Barnes Housing Fund is a big leap forward and she’s committed to keep doing that going forward,” Mendes explains.

Affordable housing is such a “multi-faceted problem” it requires a combination of several tools to “put a dent in the problem,” he says.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also named Nashville one of five urban communities nationwide to be a Promise Zone. The city will be able to tap federal resources for a number of goals: increasing affordable housing, creating jobs, building economic activity, improving educational opportunities, improving community infrastructure and reducing violent crime.

The Martha O’Bryan Center, Edgehill Coalition, Woodbine Community Organization, Conexion Americas, Urban League of Middle Tennessee and St. Luke’s Community House will have captains overseeing the efforts.

North Nashville residents also participated recently in a U.S. Department of Transportation Every Place Counts Design Challenge to create a new vision for the Jefferson Street corridor near I-40. Barry says Metro can use HUD’s Promise Zone program to connect the rest of the city to North Nashville “in a way that honors its history and ensure a vibrant and successful future.”

Pastor Thomas, however, says it will take the spending of Nashville’s white residents, not just the black community, to spur economic growth and support new businesses in the area.

“I just left the 12South area,” Thomas says recently, “and those folks are cleaning up because they’ve got both crowds, they’ve got black and white money. North Nashville, after 5 o’clock, you’re not going to see any white people here. Unless they’re at the ballpark.”

On the north side, the Germantown area will “protect” itself, he says, but from 28th Avenue down to 18th Avenue, “we’re going to perish unless we get money on both sides.”

A place for everyone

Barry makes no secret about her views on same-sex marriage, immigration, diversity and equal opportunities for women.

“I think we continue to see Nashville’s strong, diverse economy and that is the message that we send,” she says. “When you’re progressive and pro-business, it’s good for business. And Nashville has always been a warm and welcoming place, and we continue to do that.”

In that vein, she recently announced creation of the Council on Gender Equity, which will advise her and the city’s chief diversity officer to make sure Metro Nashville’s operations meet the needs of all people.

Local rock ‘n’ roller Jack White, one of several people appointed to the council, says, “A society can prosper with incredible success when gender is not an issue blocking progress and is fair to all members of that society. Government, business and the arts can all work toward the same goal of discouraging sexism, mistreatment and unfair wages of people based on their gender, including those who do not wish to label their own personal gender or sexual preference.”

When the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, Barry officiated the first such wedding in Nashville. And when the General Assembly began looking at legislation allowing therapists to refuse treatment for gay people and to restrict restrooms for transgender students, she urged lawmakers not to pass the bills.

Not only did Barry feel those measures would hurt some of Nashville’s youngest and most vulnerable residents, she contended they would hurt the city financially.

She pointed toward a potential $58 million loss in visitor spending and $10 million loss in state and local tax revenue, primarily because of organizations opting against conferences in Nashville.

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, an LGBT advocacy group, and member of the council, says Barry has done “quite well” early in her term after being supportive in her time on the Metro Council.

“She has really worked on increasing the number of appointments of LGBT people in Metro boards and commissions, and of course she was very active in helping set up Nashville’s vigil to remember the Orlando victims,” Sanders said, referring to the incident in which a gunman killed more than 20 people in a gay night club in Florida.

While Barry battled anti-LGBT legislation in the General Assembly as much as possible, the community needs mayors from other Middle Tennessee cities such as Murfreesboro and Franklin to “emulate her position” against those measures, Sanders says.

“I worked with her in 2007, and I’ve just seen the way she strategically lends her voice in support and puts in the work behind the scenes, and I expect great things in this term and hopefully another term from her,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Barry and Metro government are supporting Conexion Americas and Casa Azafran on Nolensville Pike with expansion of a Metro preschool there and development of a park next door to serve the children and greater community.

Mass transit effort

Metro is working on a mass transit study, and Barry supports measures approved in the latest General Assembly session, including buses on shoulders along heavily-traveled interstates, in addition to a law enabling government and private business to work together on major transportation projects, such as a light-rail system.

The capital spending plan includes $20 million for city buses and improvements for MTA’s fare system such as electronic payments and partnerships with Uber and Lyft for ride sharing.

But she has said consistently since the 2015 election that transportation solutions will require a collective effort by the cities and counties surrounding Nashville.

Nashville’s nMotion program will update the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Regional Transportation Authority and by late summer is to recommend short-term and long-term improvements as well as strategies for making them come to fruition.

Says Mendes, “I think we’ve got significant regional challenges, and I think she’s stepped up to be able to work with the outlying areas and the Legislature as much as, frankly, any mayor of Nashville could. I think it will continue to be an uphill fight to get that process to move forward because it’s got to be a regional solution. It can’t be a Nashville solution.”

Education crucial

While Barry is loath to grade herself, she mentions budget additions to the rainy day fund and raises for Metro employees as major successes and is proudest of the selection of a new director of Metro Nashville Public Schools.

“That was a collaborative with the school board and the community, and I think that really showcases what Nashville does when we all come together,” she says.

Shawn Joseph took office in July after an exhaustive process and a previously failed effort by the school board to hire Williamson County Director Mike Looney.

Barry says Joseph brings a “comprehensive strategy” and “track record” for moving struggling schools toward success.

Joseph faces the challenge of a large immigrant student body, with 16 percent classified as English language learners and 10 percent with limited English proficiency, especially in the early grades.

Latino children make up nearly a fourth of Metro students, and nearly a third are from families where English isn’t the main language. More English learners are enrolling each year.

Ability to change

Barry sided with former Mayor Karl Dean when he proposed selling the Nashville Fairgrounds for private development. But her capital spending plan includes $12 million to renovate the facility.

“Five years ago, voters spoke loud and clear that they wanted to preserve the Fairgrounds for future generations,” Barry explains. “This investment in the Fairgrounds will help to make the facilities more attractive for events and expos from around the country, helping to boost the profitability and long-term viability of the Fairgrounds.”

Davidson County Republican Party Chairman Bob Ries has no criticism for Barry, calling it a non-partisan seat that shouldn’t be troubled by Republican vs. Democrat issues.

Ries backs Barry’s investment in the Fairgrounds because of its “historical value” and “interest to the people” and notes he would like to see more private investment in the area, including a business corridor of entertainment, shopping centers and large retail stores connecting the Music City Center along 8th Avenue to Wedgewood and over to the Fairgrounds.

“We could call that the Music City Corridor, connecting both,” he adds. “I think that would build a very strong tax base, rather than worry about the tax rate.”

Early in Barry’s first term, Cooley points out she faces several major undertakings such as mass transportation, which could take years to solve.

Other fundamental issues such as sidewalks and infrastructure are getting plenty of attention from the mayor, he adds. Some $30 million is included in capital spending for sidewalks, along with $35 million for street paving.

“I think any mayor has to show a vision, and I think she’s doing a good job of absorbing everything she needs to absorb to sort of cast a vision for the city,” says Cooley, a former staff member of Gov. Phil Bredesen recently appointed to Barry’s Gender Equity Council.

Not only did Barry take advantage of Nashville’s strong economy to pass a “sound” budget with hardly a peep from the Metro Council, she is spreading the funding around the county, Cooley notes.

With all those factors in mind and others on the horizon, Cooley says if he were giving her a grade, Barry would earn a “very solid A.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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