Under a coffee table in his office, Bill Purcell, mayor of the metropolitan government of Nashville and Davidson County, has small plaques that list all the major corporations that have recently moved their headquarters to his central Tennessee jurisdiction: Caremark, Louisiana-Pacific and Asurion, just to name a few from 2003. These plaques reflect Nashville’s emergence as one of the top business locales in the country, earning the “hottest city” designation from Expansion Management magazine for two years running. What they don’t indicate, however, is that these relocations have occurred largely without generous state and local incentive packages. The fact is that businesses are coming to Metro Nashville simply because it’s a good place to live and work.
Much of the credit for that belongs to Purcell, 53, who has proven to be both an unusually competent manager and talented communicator since taking office in 1999. Purcell, a Democrat who previously served in the state House of Representatives, replaced Phil Bredesen, who is now Tennessee’s governor.
If Bredesen’s tenure as mayor was defined by big projects, most notably luring professional football and hockey teams to town, Purcell’s focus has been on promoting quality of life. One of his first initiatives was to fund miles of new sidewalks in a city where they’re far from ubiquitous. He’s also added more downtown housing, including affordable units, and greatly expanded greenways in the city.
The biggest quality-of-life issue he’s tackled, though, has been education. In his first year in office, Purcell visited every public school in Metro Nashville. (As of early fall this year, he’s made 482 school visits in all.) What he found were many buildings in disrepair, where basic maintenance needs were not being met. In response, he’s boosted education funding by $150 million. He also switched to budgeting for school capital needs on an annual basis, moving away from the inconsistent funding that had made it difficult for essential upkeep to take place.
These boosts in funding were enabled in part by property tax increases in 2001 and 2005 (although a sales tax hike failed the same year). As tax hikes go, neither was acrimonious, in part because Nashville still has the lowest property taxes of any major Tennessee city. The first increase was especially noteworthy because it coincided with an anti-tax uprising in Tennessee state government, one that doomed an income-tax proposal and the governorship of Don Sundquist. That the anti-tax fervor didn’t carry over to Nashville property taxes speaks to Purcell’s abilities as a consensus builder, something that’s not easy in a jurisdiction with a bulky 40-member council and a land area 60 percent larger than New York City. “People felt that he was being very frank about it and had tried to do everything else,” says Marc Hill, director of the Mayor’s Office of Children and Youth.
Part of “everything else” was a series of performance audits that Purcell began soon after taking office. These audits shook up a culture of courthouse cronyism that existed in some circles and ended the careers of the most recalcitrant metro employees. They also have led to tens of millions of dollars in savings, shining light on how metro government could be run more effectively through measures such as a better employee benefits system and a consolidated emergency communications system.
If you hear one criticism of Purcell these days, it’s that he hasn’t moved quickly enough to replace the city’s outdated convention center. The $455 million project, which has been debated for years, now seems likely to go forward, but ground probably won’t be broken until after Purcell leaves office next year. The mayor’s many defenders say that he has been reluctant to rush into it because he’s a student of history: In the 1980s, the site of the existing convention center was nothing but a hole in the ground for two years because of financing delays.
They also point out that he has taken on some big projects, from a wholesale renovation of the city courthouse to construction of a new minor league baseball stadium. The new ballpark will be built largely without public funds because the mayor persuaded the private sector to pony up more money. “Nashville’s doing better than it ever has,” says David Ewing, a senior vice president in the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, “going back to Andrew Jackson.”
— Josh Goodman
Photo by Sheri O'Neal