Murfreesboro Mayor McFarland talks municipal growth

BY LINDA BRYANT

In 2014, Shane McFarland became the youngest mayor in the history of Murfreesboro. Now 42, McFarland has his hands full overseeing the city of 150,000, one of the fastest growing in the nation.

The youthful mayor is known to colleagues, friends and constituents as a friendly, get-it-done leader who’s just as devoted to community activities such as coaching youth baseball as he is to making sure the city continues to prosper.

City Councilman Bill Shacklett portrays McFarland as a “next generation” leader and praises his style of working with the community.

“Shane is fully invested in family, work and city,” Shacklett said. “He encourages respectful dialogue while we are coming to our decisions. He has the nature of a true leader. He seeks the common good. “We hear from people these days who talk a lot about what they are going to do, but often they don’t back it up with their actions,” Shacklett added. “Not only does Shane get things done, he gets them done in a way that brings people together. He walks his talk.”

City Manager Rob Lyons, who works closely with McFarland every day, commends him in a similar fashion.

“Mayor McFarland is a collaborative leader, who excels at building consensus,” Lyons said. “One of the first things you notice about him is his faith and humility.”

Lyons is also appreciative of McFarland’s style, which he characterizes as laid-back, yet focused and diligent.

“It is not unusual for him to send me emails in the early morning hours,” Lyons said. “He packs as much as he can into the day so he can enjoy his family when he gets home. I’m not sure I can offer up any negatives other than he roots for the Braves. I am a Phillies fan.”

TT&C: Although you weren’t born in Murfreesboro, and you’re only 42, you’ve been active in the city and county for quite some time. Tell us a little about your background and how you ended up calling Murfreesboro home.

SM: I’m originally from Monteagle. I moved to Murfreesboro in 1992 when my twin brother and I went to MTSU. We were the first two people in our family to graduate from college. I graduated with an accounting degree. I went to work for a small company in Murfreesboro working on finance right out of college. Since 1997, I’ve been in the construction industry. You wouldn’t figure someone with an accounting degree would go into construction but I did. I started my own company, Shane McFarland Construction in 2008, and I’ve stayed in the industry ever since. TT&C: How did you become interested in public service? SM: I served on the Murfreesboro Planning Commission for three or four years and then I decided to run for city council in 2006. I have always been interested in government. I was on the student council in high school, and I was the student body president at MTSU from 1995 to 1996.

TT&C: Why did you run for mayor?

SM: I have a young family — 13-year-old twin boys and a four year old. So, I have a reason to see that Murfreesboro stays a great place to live. I served on the city council for eight years. During that time I saw many things I wanted to work on. Most of the mayors in Murfreesboro have been in a different stage of life than I am. It’s interesting to present a new picture of a mayor, a picture that shows the mayor with a young family and one who’s still working. A lot of our previous mayors were already retired. It’s a lot to run your own business and be mayor at the same time, but I wanted that challenge.

TT&C: What are some of your biggest projects and initiatives?

SM: Right now we are working on the transportation needs we have within the city. Not only the roads within the city of Murfreesboro but all the state roads. We are working in conjunction with our state delegation to make sure we’re on a timeline. We are continually working on business development and all the issues and pressures related to so many people coming into the city. Another thing we are continually focused on is our education system. We have one of the top two education districts in Tennessee, so it’s very important to keep education a top priority. We have over a quarter billion dollar investment going on in our downtown area. We see that as another huge priority. We consistently work with MTSU to be able to provide them with anything that they need assistance with.

TT&C: Murfreesboro is 34 miles from Nashville and you are a growing city with your own identity and history. How do you differentiate as a community?

SM: Nashville and Murfreesboro are two very distinct areas. It’s really hard to make a comparison because it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Of course, people who want to live in a more urban setting think of moving to Nashville. But a lot of people are now moving to Rutherford County specifically because of our quality of life. The Murfreesboro Parks and Recreation system is top rated, not just in the state but in the country. If you look at everything as a whole in Murfreesboro now — the school systems, quality of life, our parks system and commercial offerings — you realize that you don’t have to drive to Nashville to get these things. And let’s not forget to mention affordability. Rutherford County is a very affordable place to live and generally more affordable than Nashville. We are going through our budget right now, and I think that we are going to be in our 20th year without a property tax increase. It’s not hard to see that Murfreesboro has a lot of bonuses.

TT&C: Can you talk about your business growth and corporation relocations and expansions? What companies are choosing to come to Murfreesboro?

SM: Here’s a good example: this time last year, Kasai of North America relocated here and opened their national headquarters. They are an international automotive industry that deals mainly in automotive parts. [The Japanese company invested $13.4 million in a 63,800-square-foot building, bringing 250 jobs averaging $60,000 annually in salaries.] So yes, we are seeing relocations and expansions. Murfreesboro sells itself because of its affordability, and this is something that we are extremely proud of. We are always working on bringing more industry here.

TT&C: Is it fair to assume that one of the reasons you have grown so fast is because Murfreesboro has pro-growth policies?

SM: I think you are correct in saying that Murfreesboro is pro-growth. You’ve heard that old saying, “You’re growing or you’re not, there’s no middle ground.” That’s true, but we have also tried to ask the question, “What is the appropriate growth?” There is definitely good growth —and there’s bad growth. It’s probably not the best political answer, but we don’t always get it right. There are areas inside the city that I look at now and think, “I wish we would have done that differently.” We just finished our 20-year comprehensive plan, which we call Murfreesboro 2035. It contains the community’s vision for growth and development and sets the framework for the physical development of the city. We have gone through the previous comprehensive plan and revamped land use, zoning, and major thoroughfare planning issues. It includes a vision and plan for county schools, police officers, firefighters, etc. It’s very important that we plan ahead. Of course, that’s easier said than done because things change so quickly. But we have to make sure that we really stay up-to-date on everything in order to manage our growth. When I moved here in 1992, which was 25 years ago, there were 40,000 residents. Now we’re up to almost 150,000. We have almost quadrupled in size over the last several years, and that is phenomenally fast paced.

TT&C: With so much emphasis on Murfreesboro’s explosive growth, how do you try to manage that growth?

SM: We need to be looking at our infrastructure needs and at our major thoroughfare plan. I think any municipality is going to be dealing with similar issues related to how you manage growth. I say this jokingly, it’s not like we can build a wall around the Midstate and tell people that they cannot come here. I think Murfreesboro — and most of the region — is seeing that same trend. You look at Nashville and Davidson County, Williamson County, Maury County and Wilson County; all of us are dealing with a lot of the same issues. I would much rather be facing issues about growing fast and managing that growth rather than facing the opposite of not having people and businesses moving here.

TT&C: Because Murfreesboro is a fast-growing city close to Nashville, which is also growing in stature and population, there’s plenty of talk at the local and state level about improving mass transportation options in Middle Tennessee.

SM: We are very fortunate to have a Legislature that’s put a high priority on transportation. It’s a high priority for our local elected officials, too. I am pleased with the partnerships that are developing — whether they are private or public. One of my goals is to recruit more jobs so that so many of our residents don’t have to drive to Nashville to work. I want us to do the very best we can to have an infrastructure in place where we can handle it.

TT&C: The Tennessee Municipal League Conference is in Murfreesboro this year. Can you speak about the city’s ability to attract small and mid-sized conventions?

SM: The conference center at Embassy Suites, which is built in the Gateway area, stays absolutely packed. [The 80,000-square-foot conference center is adjacent to The Avenue, which is Tennessee’s largest open-air shopping and dining area.] Tourism is absolutely one of our top economic drivers in Murfreesboro, whether it is related to conferences, conventions or the fact that we are considered the sports capital of Tennessee. We just had Spring Fling this week. [Spring Fling is an Olympic-style festival featuring the high school state tournaments in baseball, soccer, softball, tennis and track and field held in Rutherford and Wilson counties.] We have got one — if not the — finest soccer facility in the Southeast. Our growing tourism industry is happening, in part, because of our central location and because of the ease of getting in and out of Murfreesboro.

TT&C: What are some of Murfreesboro’s biggest challenges?

SM: Among our three top issues, transportation is absolutely No. 1. It’s an issue that has a Midstate reach, but we are internally making sure we have our networks and infrastructure in place, too. The second big challenge is solid waste and trash issues within the Midstate. There is a private trash landfill area in Rutherford County, Middle Point, where 27 counties throughout Middle Tennessee bring their trash. Middle Point is expected to reach capacity within a few years and taxpayers will lose free use of the landfill. We have been working over the last two years to come up with a good plan of what we are going to do next. This is going to be a significant issue. No. 3 is to continue to work on quality-of-life issues such as crime and making sure that with all of our continuing growth we are able to maintain our quality of life. As the mayor, it’s a tough thing say, “OK, this is our No. 1 priority,” because really you have 20 or more No. 1 priorities at a time. What I may see as the No. 1 priority may be different from a neighbor who has a pothole in front of their driveway.

TT&C: Do you have a specific style or philosophy of leadership?

SM: My general style is to see all the residents of Murfreesboro as customers. In any type of business you try and do the best you can and keep your customers happy. If people are interested in getting involved in the political arena I tell them, “If you don’t like answering your phone or responding to emails then you don’t need to run for office or get involved in this type of job.” That’s really my philosophy. You want to be accessible, do the best you can and always make sure you are responding. People may not like the answer they get, but you still want to let people know that you are listening to them and doing everything you possibly can to help.

TT&C: What would people be surprised to know about Murfreesboro?

SM: I think they’d be surprised to know about the amount of diverse activities we have in Murfreesboro, whether it’s residential, commercial or entertainment. We are known for growth, but many might be surprised to find out we are the 13th fastest-growing city in the country.

TT&C: What life lessons have you learned thus far since you’ve been mayor?

SM: I have learned that I’m the type of leader that likes to build a consensus. But I’ve also learned that there are specific times when you really need to make sure you’re heading in the direction you want to go. When you’re not a full-time mayor, you have other things going on in your life. You have to be sure you put the appropriate people [in city government jobs and appointments] in the right positions.

TT&C: It’s interesting that Murfreesboro has a part-time mayor. Can you explain how your form of government works?

SM: It’s a council-manager form of government that has worked well for us. We have a city manager, Rob Lyons, who is professionally trained in municipal services. He manages the day-to-day operations. The city council [six members, all elected at-large for a four-year term] is more of a board of directors that makes sure we are seeing the big picture initiatives. As mayor, I help set the direction in policy and make sure the staff follows our directives. You don’t take this job if you need it for financial gain. I make $12,000 a year as mayor. You have to do it out of a sense of duty and an obligation and because you want to see your community do better. We have great people who work for our city. I knew that when I took office because I had worked with the staff when I was a council member. We are like many organizations; we have a lot of people continually working on improving all areas of our government and city. This includes so many people: from the solid waste employee, who’s picking up trash cans every single day, to the firefighters, police officers, teachers, planning staff and city manager, who are also serving us daily.

TT&C: Where do you think Murfreesboro will be in five years?

SM: In a perfect world, we would continue to have an educational system that is second to none. I would also want to see the completion of some of the road projects that we have worked on for many years. More than anything I would want to look at the city as a whole and know that it’s a safe place — and a great place — to raise a family or retire.