Mayors talk challenges, growth, and successes at TML Conference forum

BY KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

A group of mayors from municipalities across Tennessee got their chance to weigh in on issues cities and towns in the state are facing as well as how they have approached their own unique challenge during a forum at the Tennessee Municipal League Annual Conference in Murfreesboro.

Facilitated by keynote speaker and Governing magazine publisher Mark Funkhouser, the forum featured Kingsport Mayor John Clark, Livingston Mayor Curtis Hayes, Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley, and Murfreesboro Mayor Shane McFarland.

Development and managing growth were issues all four mayors said they are experiencing in various capacities. For Erwin, Hensley said the biggest challenge is the loss of jobs after two major industries closed or laid off employees in the town of 6,000 people.

“The challenge that we are facing now is that 52 percent of our county is owned by the state and federal governments, so there is a limited amount of developable property,” she said. “We are focusing this time on getting more retail in our downtown. We have invested more than $5 million in our downtown revitalization, but there is not enough retail in the area. Our biggest challenge right now is rebranding our town.”

With the closing of the railroad, Hensley said Erwin is learning to market its natural resources to bring in more visitors and businesses. Hensley said the local Downtown Merchants Association and local Millennials that formed the group called RISE Erwin are working with local officials to reinvent Erwin.

“They came up with things they want to see, like having residences downtown so they can walk to church, walk to school, and get out on the sidewalks at night,” Hensley said. “We have passed ordinances that allow residences and multi-use downtown business district with retail on the ground floors and accommodations upstairs. We have incorporated liquor-by-the-drink that allows for jazz bars. Since the railroad closed, we have held three festivals in the last year that RISE Erwin volunteers have helped put on. Those new annual festivals bring in thousands of people. Even though we are a small community, we are working together.”

Growth was also one of the biggest challenges for Livingston, Kingsport, and Murfreesboro.
“Due to the annexation laws passed in the state of Tennessee, there is no room for growth as far as expanding outside the city limits,” Hayes said. “Our urban growth boundary has shown us there is room for growth. It hurts us for attracting retail.”

More retail, chain restaurants and a hotel are goals for Livingston. While these businesses exist 20 minutes away, Hayes said the city has had an issue with bringing these businesses to the city because those parcels of land that are open outside the city limits and those with property within the city limits are unable or unwilling to sell it at reasonable prices to facilitate development.

“When the economy gets bad, people tend to stay at home more,” Hayes said. “As it begins to get better, people are looser with their pocket books and go out of town. We have a major issue with sales tax leakage. We are ranked third in the state for sales tax leakage, so keeping people in Livingston is one of our goals.”
McFarland said Murfreesboro has gone from 40,000 residents in 1992 to nearly 150,000 25 years later.

“Having the largest state university in Murfreesboro and with the growth they have had as well, transportation, trash and all of those things that come along with that growth we have to deal with,” he said.

As a result, the city is increasingly facing urban issues. McFarland said it can sometimes be difficult to explain to citizens the need to plan for future growth when residents are more concerned with issues like pot holes and road construction.

“My biggest job as mayor is to manage those expectations and keep us going in the right direction,” he said. “I don’t really get to say that one thing is my one priority or the one thing I’m working on. Like most elected officials, you have to juggle a lot of balls.”

Clark said Kingsport’s top challenge is to maintain and grow the city’s population – both residential and business – in a modest and affordable way.
“We are a city of more than 53,000 people and 4,000 businesses,” he said. “We have a lot of manufacturing, and I know a lot of people want manufacturing. It’s a great thing to have. But there is a downside in manufacturing, which is a livability piece. Cities with both residents and industry both growing together have to figure out a way to coexist.”

To face these challenges, Clark said cities need to learn to embrace change and run more like businesses in terms of providing customers with what they want, establishing visions for the future that are citizen-supported, managing cities in more financially sound manners with balanced budgets, marketing and promoting cities, and to try to grow through public and private partnerships. Investments in cites that attract customers are also valuable for maintaining and attracting residents and business, he said.

“What is the quality of life that our customers – who are our citizens, our businesses, our developers and our tourists – want to see, and how much are they willing to pay to achieve that level of quality of life,” Clark said. “The second thing is that we need to understand is that countries, states and cities are competing for those four customers everyday. Maybe not directly and maybe not indirectly, but competing nonetheless.”

While communities face challenges, there are also successes Tennessee municipalities can boast about. Hensley said RISE Erwin and partnerships with regional entities like the counties and other cities have benefitted Erwin.

“It didn’t start out as a success,” she said. “You take your lemons and turn them into lemonade. Our main success has been that we have come together as a community and as a region. That is the reason Erwin is able to do what we are doing now. It is not something I have done or our board has done by themselves. It is something we have done collectively.”

Hayes said some of Livingston’s major successes include the recently completed $1.1 million Livingston Central Park as well as the downtown façade project.
“It was called Project Touch-Up and it gave people downtown $15,000 to $20,000 to improve their businesses interior and exterior,” Hayes said. “The result of that is there is not an empty building around our courthouse. There is a $600,000 building going up right now – the first major development we’ve had on the square in 50 years. We have a new retail store and people living downtown for the first time in a long time. It’s all about catching different money.”

For McFarland, Murfreesboro’s successes include the recruitment of more corporate headquarters to keep jobs within the city limits and maintaining higher sales taxes revenues than from property taxes. Public safety and parks and recreation are also major a pull for the city.

“One of the things people have become accustomed to in Murfreesboro is the level of parks and recreation,” he said. “We have a 20-plus-mile greenway system and parks all over the major quadrants of the city. We have great things like Spring Fling where people come in, stay here, pay our hotel-motel tax, spend money in our restaurants, buying things in our shops, buying gas, and then they leave and we don’t have to educate them or anything like that.”

The new Miracle Field and adjoining playground specifically for special needs children is one of the newest accomplishments for the city’s park’s department, he said.
Clark said the teamwork city employees and elected officials put in is one of the things he is most proud of in his community. Re-engaging with citizens during the recent OneKingsport Summit also helped city officials ensure the city is on the right path.

“We brought the community together to get a check on where we are and where we are going,” he said. “We are focusing on the 100 big ideas that came out of the 300 citizens who participated in the summit. It was a really great exchange of dialogue over a two-day period of time. We have seven major areas our citizens wanted us to improve, to help our city be the best city it can possibly be and retain and attract those four key customer segments.”