Last week’s announcement that Metro Economic and Community Development Director Alexia Poe plans to leave the office to join Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration caused some to wonder about that department’s efficacy in Mayor Karl Dean’s administration. Is the office necessary, given the tight relationship the mayor’s office maintains with the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce? Or should it be doing more to compete with Music City’s recently aggressive neighboring counties?
Those who spoke with NashvillePost.com, many of whom asked to remain anonymous due to past and possible future dealings with the department, agreed that the department is valuable. They also said that in some cases, more should be done there.
The primary functions of the department, as outlined by the administration, are to work with the mayor to develop incentives to attract and retain businesses in Davidson County, serve as a liaison between business and the city, administer foreign trade zones, and support and enhance tourism.
But some of those mandates are handled by other agencies — often larger ones. The Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, for instance, covers tourism. In addition, Nashville is home to the influential chamber of commerce and the base for a strong state ECD. And while those two offices typically mean good things for the region, they’re not just looking out for Davidson County.
Even within the administration, responsibilities that could conceivably fall under the ECD’s purview are delegated elsewhere. For example, the Department of Neighborhoods that began under former Mayor Bill Purcell could fall neatly under the “community” aspect of the ECD charge, one source said.
Meanwhile, when businesses look here to relocate, Nashville is often just one of the markets trying to land the deal. Courtney Ross, vice president of existing business for the chamber, said most often the chamber is the first call. The chamber is there, she said, “to streamline the process for businesses looking at the region,” adding that the mayor’s office needs an economic development director because “we [the chamber] can’t always sell Nashville.”
Ross also noted that a staffer at the mayor’s office is vital in handling various aspects of deals that the chamber cannot — for instance, permits and codes. But there is a larger diversion of interests, Poe said.
“The state is focused on Tennessee, the chamber of commerce is focused on the region, and I’m doing what I can to bring those jobs to Davidson County,” she said.
Cities compete directly with other cities in the current climate. In particular, Davidson and Williamson counties — both covered by the area chamber — compete with each other for corporate relocations. That seems to be an obvious case for keeping the ECD, sources said. And despite their frustrations, few observers were willing to cast many aspersions on the ECD itself. Most, in fact, lamented the difficult position in which the ECD can at times find itself.
In some cases, sources said, regulations applying solely to government entities can make it difficult for the department to land companies or secure bigger deals. Companies dealing with the chamber, for instance, have greater secured confidentiality, as transparency laws like Metro’s do not bind the public-private chamber. On a more general front, one only has to briefly peruse the websites of the various organizations to see that that the chamber and the state ECD are much larger offices with far more resources to bring to bear in discussions with businesses. Metro’s ECD is just one of many vying for the business the larger entities can bring.
Some pointed to the absence of a unified vision from the mayor’s office and ECD. Exhibit A: the recent turmoil surrounding the future of the Tennessee State Fairgrounds and Dean’s largely nonspecific plan for its redevelopment, which was eventually shelved after community uproar.
There’s also been a high level of turnover in Poe’s position during the Dean administration. In the last four years, the office has seen three different directors. With Poe’s impending departure, it presumably looks to welcome a fourth.
Going forward, it seems the position will be as valuable as Dean decides it is. As Nashville has by and large experienced an upward trajectory in recent years, many see little change in the offing, and there is also a certain comfort level with the status quo.
But others are ready for a more assertive and supported ECD. Asked about the prospects for Poe’s successor, a source who has worked with the department in the past told NashvillePost.com: “The mayor should be expecting whoever has that job to come in with a clear plan, and then actually let them go get it done.”
At-large Councilwoman Megan Barry, who has worked with the administration on legislation in the past, defended the department for its advocacy.
“It is vitally important that Metro have a strong ECD so that we can reap the benefits here in Davidson County,” she said.