March 18, 2022 1:00pm

The Vision Thing

Power Pollers overwhelmingly support notion of new vision document for city

Photo of Bruce Dobie
Nashville, TN Correspondent
 

Nashville does not have a clear vision for what it wants to be in 15 to 20 years. And the city should start another process to define the city's mission rather than stick with earlier plans. Those are the viewpoints of an overwhelming majority of Power Poll members who responded in all-time record numbers to our March survey.

The topic obviously struck a chord. A total of 496 Power Poll members participated in the survey, by email, over a three-day period.

As to this month's "completely unimportant question"—whether this winter was more of a drag than usual—Power Poll members by a very narrow margin said that, no, winters here are always an emotional bummer. Just deal with it.

Back to the serious matter at hand, here are the specific questions and answers to this month's Power Poll:

DISCLAIMER: Power Poll is not a scientific survey. Rather, it focuses only on surveying influential, powerful, significant individuals. In the aggregate, these people comprise much of the leadership structure of the city and influence directly or indirectly policy and direction. The results offer up a fascinating piece of intelligence about the city and where it is going. In addition to Nashville, Power Poll is active in approximately three dozen cities across the country. It is distinctly nonpartisan.

CONTEXT

Here goes. We seek a vision for the city.

A plan.

A guiding mission.

A framework of goals.

What are we talking about here? That depends. This stuff gets amorphous and vague pretty quick.

Let me set the table by saying that this month's Power Poll questions grew out of last month's questions. Then, we asked whether Nashville's exploding growth was threatening the soul of the city (which in and of itself can be vague and head-scratching.) A large margin responded that it is being threatened.

In a vigorous Power Poll discussion that ensued, many argued the city had no vision, no plan, no guide, for where it was headed. And so, that lead to this month's questions, as to whether we should create such a thing.

In a number of interviews over this week, many of which were off-the-record, I would say there clearly is a high degree of interest in conducting such a process. There were a number of common reasons that emerged in these conversations for why such a process is a good idea, which I would distill as follows:

• The massive growth of the city and influx of newcomers here has led to concerns that our traditional value structure is threatened. We are a kind and warm-hearted people and worry those traits will disappear as the newcomers arrive to cash their paychecks and care little about being part of our civic culture.

• We are concerned that fundamental public services are not being provided in a logical, effective manner (trash pickup, public transportation, public education) even while the city focuses on massive development projects (think the coming East Bank/Titans stadium projects).

• An outsized number of the city's leaders and influencers feel Mayor John Cooper has failed to articulate clear and defined priorities that presumably would form a city vision. Nature abhors a vacuum. So let's do this ourselves.

• Finally, so much has happened in the city since any visioning process was last undertaken, and so many diverse interests and voices have joined the city conversation. That warrants another process.

THINGS TO BE AWARE OF: A PRIMER

It might help to look at what has come before as we discuss the how, who and what of a visioning process. The city has a number of plans that have been produced by various government entities, non-profit groups, and ad-hoc gatherings, over the years. We've gotten pretty good at it. Consider:

Nashville's Agenda (1993, 2007)

Nashville's Agenda was, and still is, a well-financed, well-publicized, well-organized effort that at its inception identified a series of goals, in specific silos like "education" and "transportation" and "the arts" and more. Established in the early '90s, Nashville's Agenda in its first effort came up with 21 goals, not long after Phil Bredesen's election as mayor. The completion rate was really impressive. Another process was undertaken in 2007. Today some might argue that Nashville's Agenda has grown a bit old and doesn't have the reach into progressive organizations that is needed to conduct another goal-setting process. But it's still around and can claim backing from the holy trinity of the Turners, Ingrams and Frists.

Nashville Next (2015)

NashvilleNext, the general plan for the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, was produced by the Metro Planning Department in 2015. It "provides direction and policy direction on the physical structure of Davidson County—the things we build, how and where we build them, and the places we preserve." The plan, which is in effect through 2040, is required by law. While NashvilleNext is limited to being a planning document, and not a far-reaching set of goals or plans, it nonetheless gathered input from nearly 20,000 community members at over 400 meetings, briefings, and events. It involved just about every branch of Metro Government. It also was based around a set of common values unique to the city, which are worth reading.

The Plan of Nashville (2005)

The Plan of Nashville grew out of a "charette" hosted by the Nashville Scene, at which numerous urban planners from around the country sketched out ideas and plans for SOBRO. This later led to the creation of the Civic Design Center which then produced The Plan of Nashville, which was written by the inimitable Christine Kreyling and focussed on the core downtown area. Again, the focus was limited to urban planning, not other policy areas.

Partnership 2000

In the late '80s and early '90s, the Chamber undertook an economic development plan that touched on a number of civic initiatives that would be needed to make the local economy more successful. Over the years, that process has been renewed, recycled, and re-launched. The Chamber also has a regional plan that touches on several initiatives and, beginning in the early '80s, it produced a report prepared by the Committee for Community Excellence. The Chamber has some great data, but as a business group, it wouldn't have adequate support across the community to do a citywide plan. The transit debate and failed referendum roughed it up pretty well also.

VOICES THAT ARE WORTH PAYING ATTENTION TO CURRENTLY WHILE THE SUBJECT IS DISCUSSED

In addition to the above, several voices are weighing in on the subject and are very much worth paying attention to.

• Council members Bob Mendes and Freddie O'Connell are both extremely bright and are also great writers. In the face of the collapsing traditional media industry as we knew it, the two often write some of the best pieces on city government, policy, Council, and, yes, the vision thing.

Both think we need a vision.

Mendes' recent piece, simply titled "Where Are We Going," acknowledges that creating a new plan for the city could be dismissed "as too simple or too trite. I would ask them to talk to the community. This is what people want."

O'Connell, meanwhile, gets more nitty-gritty and lays out specific spending priorities for all the federal dollars coming our way. Again, he throws around the vision word fairly often. Email him for a copy of that piece at freddie@readyforfreddie.com.

• Local public relations exec Greg Bailey has begun convening regular meetings whose purpose, he says, is to "advance the discussion on what the future looks like for Nashville." He began with a group of just over a dozen people, including Hal Cato, who since has stopped attending as he prepares a potential run for mayor. The group is growing. "We're talking about the core values of the city. It's very diverse. We've talked about crime, about education. It's issue sharing." Underlying it all, he says, is this: "We cannot let the character of our city go away amidst this economic prosperity." Bailey's group includes Anthony Davis, Laura Creekmore, Shan Foster, Maggie Bond, and others. It has had chats with Nashville's Agenda about what both groups are up to, and, at press time, had come up with a name: Future Nashville.

• Leadership Nashville is talking this up, both in panel discussions for its alums AND in its current class discussions. (Power Poll pretty must stole its question in February from a recent Leadership Nashville panel discussion, thank you LN.)

• Finally, a number of public agencies either continue to conduct plans or commence new ones. Cumberland Region Tomorrow looks at a really big area in Middle Tennessee and its work is phenomenal. Metro Planning director Lucy Kempf is always refining her department's NashvilleNext plan. And very importantly, Courtney Pogue, the city's new economic and community development director, is conducting a new plan and also rattling cages as he focuses less on big-ticket corporate relocations and more on smaller businesses and enterprises. "We have a regional plan for the Chamber, but not a localized plan to focus on the city itself and the various components of the city, being the various communities that make up a city," Pogue recently told the Nashville Scene. "To address the needs of North Nashville, to address the needs of Southeast Nashville, to address food insecurity, to address workforce development, to address small business development, entrepreneurship, all those things that make up the various buckets of economic development."

LET US NOW STEP INTO THE HOLY VISIONING TENT

What is happening now among many Power Pollers is they are looking at one another and going, "Ok, we need to do something. You go first." But it is not easy. Step 1 is the hardest.

To begin, one needs a neutral convenor. One needs the person, or agency, that can bring it all together, inclusively, without bias. Arguably, the convenor needs to be something new. Nashville's Agenda comes closest to what is needed, and yet there's dust on its shelves that needs shaking off. So much has changed in the city; something new must arise to meet the occasion. Where is Switzerland when you need it?

It's complicated. All of the players mentioned above need to be involved. It will cost money. Some very smart people here in town are spending time at the Envision Utah website, considered one of the best in the country. Should we emulate that? (Note: Envision Utah has a full-time staff of 11.)

Another issue: The timing is weird. Candidates are lining up to run for mayor in 2023, so any wide-ranging, goal-setting, vision-establishing process would run concurrently with candidates seeking to be mayor putting out their own visions. Would the two processes compete? Or could they help one another?

But back to the convenor. That first act—the sine qua non of this process—could sink it. If there is no trust in the group hosting the party, it will fail. How are NOAH, The Equity Alliance, Black Lives Matter and other progressive organizations that did not exist until recently brought into a discussion with people who have known and worked with one another for years? These are gnarly issues. Success will only come if everyone trusts the convenor.

One idea currently making the rounds is that the convenor be a consortium of our local colleges and universities. Belmont, Fisk, Lipscomb, Meharry, and of course Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt could likely lead; others contribute. The collective brainpower and organizational overlay would be sizable. The neutrality is indisputable. And I like the fact that here, in the Athens of the South, we would turn to our institutions of higher learning for help.

Great hurdles remain. Such as, if we find a convenor, what do we talk about? Do we, as Cato argues in his Power Poll comment, focus on defining our city's core values "before we jump on the 'where do we want to go' horse?" Or do we, as activist Avi Poster suggests in his comment, not "start from scratch" but instead "pull the most recent reports off the shelves, dust them off... and then decide if we need a process for affirming and expanding on them."

I particularly like what Colliers executive Janet Miller, who is also the chairman of the Nashville's Agenda Steering Committee, had to say. "I do know a pathway exists to do this," she said. "But we would just have to make damn sure we get this right coming out of the gates."

Damn right.

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