Nashville Mayor John Cooper talked about improvements and investments he would like to make in the Donelson, Hermitage and Old Hickory communities and reflected on his first year in office.
Cooper reflected on the tornado that ravaged Donelson and Hermitage on March 3. He marveled both at the destruction of the storm and the resilience and camaraderie shown by the communities as they rebuilt.
“First, I think we should all acknowledge the tornado,” Cooper said. “The tornado was pretty devastating, and it was an amazing thing, both by here [near Tenn-Fold Brewing] and by Donelson Christian [Academy], how the neighborhoods came together. Donelson and Hermitage really ended up coming back from one of the worst tornadoes to hit an American city and some specific sites like Donelson Christian. That was just complete devastation, and yet their determination to stay there and rebuild has been an incredible inspiration to everybody.
“This community is going to be the most inspiring moment of my or any other mayor’s life, particularly coming together after the tornado, when those 20-plus thousand, starting in Mount Gilead here and going out and to work in the community. That’s just an incredible thing to see 20,000 spontaneously show up to work for a day to help their neighbors. So, you have the lows of how difficult the crisis is but then the highs of how great people are in helping each other.”
Cooper conveyed his belief that individual neighborhoods that make up greater Nashville are vital to the city’s survival going forward and should be a focal point. “The future of the city, I do think, is very much in neighborhoods,” he said. “In this case, it’s really a city area – Donelson and Hermitage, that is. COVID is going to move 10 years of change into just a few months. The suburban-urban-downtown core will continue to happen, but the real exciting thing is going to be the nodes of the neighborhoods, the communities, the Donelson community, the Madison community, and that’s where re-investment or investment by the city is going to pay off so much.”
Cooper stressed traffic, transportation and helping small businesses, particularly through the pandemic, as types of investments he wants to make in Donelson, Hermitage and Old Hickory.
“We’re going to announce next week a transportation plan in the first year, the first full year of being in office, that transportation plan is going to be directed at neighborhood investments, so that most of the population will live within a quarter- or a half-mile of these improvements,” Cooper said. “So, to come to your neighborhood with traffic-calming turning lanes, sidewalks and signals, and ultimately, to look to the neighborhood nodes first for what we can do for them and not just rely on investment down in the city core to be driving the whole city.”
Cooper said while traffic through the neighborhoods and in Nashville as a whole appears to have decreased during the pandemic, studies showed otherwise – that traffic flow merely became better distributed.
He said he hopes to work with area businesses and encourage them to stagger their business hours, specifically opening times, to encourage everyone not to have to be out on the road all at the same time.
Cooper also discussed his COVID-19 pandemic response. He praised the work of his top two advisors, Dr. James Hildreth and Dr. Alex Jahangir, and related how a realistic timetable of development and implementation of a vaccine also enabled him to give residents of Nashville a realistic timetable for a return to normalcy.
“The news about the vaccine gives us a good timetable for the recovery, so we can say to people, ‘Let’s get through the next three to four to even five months, and then, with the vaccine, we can get to the other side of that and get back to normal.’ So, we need to have a strategy for encouraging each other to keep ourselves safe and have as much economic activity as you can. It’s the beginning of the end with the vaccine, so we can just tell the businesses and people, ‘hold on. Wear masks. Maybe we won’t be able to do Thanksgiving or Christmas this year the way that we would like to, but we will by the end of the spring be in a different place in the country.’ So, I think that’s the message of hope that we never really [had until now.]”
With a timetable currently in play of only a few months until a vaccine is expected to be available, Cooper stressed there is help available for people who have had challenges paying rent and businesses struggling to stay open. He said he expects there will be a second CARES Act passed by Congress soon, and business owners and residents can find assistance through the Donelson-Hermitage Chamber of Commerce or by going to Hub.Nashville to inquire about and apply for aid from the city.
Cooper said he was pleased, overall, with the response to the coronavirus by the citizenry, and the numbers reflect that.
“You have the lows of how difficult the crisis is, but then the highs of how great people are in helping each other,” Cooper said. “And even in the closures and the mask-wearing, I won’t say that it’s been 100% accepted by everybody, but it’s been accepted by most people. We’ve done it. It’s not a perfect job, but in terms of keeping our seniors relatively safe, Nashville’s mortality rate has always been lower than others cities, dramatically lower, like New York or Seattle, or 50% below Memphis, so I think that’s a credit to everyone’s hard work and getting us through it.”
Cooper brought up the decision to raise property taxes amid the pandemic, a move that was met with opposition and frustration by many from the community. He discussed his difficulty in making the decision and his desire to help residents keep it in perspective, as well as maintain hope that when the pandemic ends, that a tax decrease may be possible.
“We had simultaneously this kind of financial crisis in which the city had run out of money, and it was a COVID moment that hit us at the city’s most vulnerable state financially. The inevitability of the need to [raise taxes] was super hard, but by and large, most people have accepted that this is what’s required to be the kind of city we want to live in, and that has gone forward, and it’s with 80% of the council working on this, including a very fine councilmember, Jeff Syracuse, from [District 15], in terms of consistent, patient leadership,” Cooper said. “It is unfortunate, but we’re willing to make the hard choices to get to a better city, and that’s not only wearing masks, and unfortunately, in some cases, children staying home from school. But that’s also the willingness to pay somewhat higher property taxes. However, they’re still the lowest in the state of Tennessee for a city, and we’re the lowest taxed state in the country, but that’s part of sacrifice, too, and we’re part of a city that’s willing to sacrifice, too.
“The city sets this property tax rate every year. We would all be excited about this rate coming down. We got so close to running out of money, I was worried about the payroll in July for our police officers and fire officers. Even though it’s unpopular, it’s not right for those paychecks to be in question at all. It’s a great moment of leadership for the city, but it’s a great thing that people are willing to sacrifice for their city. That’s what we’re all doing.”
Cooper reiterated his desire to make meaningful investments in the Donelson, Hermitage and Old Hickory neighborhoods, in part, because of the renaissance he sees them experiencing in recent days.
“Economic development, I mean in these three communities, you’re going to have a huge amount of growth going forward,” Cooper said. “Maybe not everywhere in Nashville but there’s no question here. Donelson has kind of transformed in the last few years. Hip Donelson has become a prescriptive, as well as a descriptive. So much of our creative community is relocating to Donelson, and with that is going to create a more vibrant business condition and climate. But, you’ve got to pick up the trash, build the sidewalks and get the streets repaired, invest in transportation. The Music City Star needs a ton of money. We want to expand its service area.
“Being a mayor is a lot more like running a business than some people would care to think, but you have to be willing to make the kind of return-on-investment decisions that the community benefits from. What I’m hoping to get accomplished in the next four years is the return on investment in your community, not just the downtown. That’s important. That’s raising all boats, but let’s focus on what success looks like in your community.”
Looking back on his first year in office, Cooper said he would have liked to have done a few things differently in forging his relationship with the businesses and residents in Donelson, Hermitage and Old Hickory.
“Part of the problem of the last year is that the city has had to make financial adjustments,” he said. “This happened in the middle of lockdown, so you were not able to go out and have as many civic engagements and see people face-to-face and explain it to them as carefully as you would have. A property tax rate adjustment is difficult, but in the middle of a pandemic lockdown, makes it even more difficult but actually makes it more necessary. Because you can’t have an insolvent city in the middle of a pandemic.”
Cooper stressed while taxes went up, property values have consistently risen, as well.
“You don’t want a situation of an underinvested city, causing people not wanting to be here, including the people who are already here, that we didn’t invest enough in our city, that we had terrible infrastructure, that we didn’t pick up our trash, that we didn’t pay our police well, and our school system had no plans for improvements. That is a worse outcome. So, the combination of the two, that it’s less than what everybody else is paying in every other city, and it’s what we’re going to have to pay in order to have service conditions that allows you to have a better life and to keep your values up and going up.
“Let’s be honest. It’s much harder when your property values are going down. If your property values are going up, most people in America are deeply jealous of that condition, and that’s something that we have to preserve. Even at the end of it, property values and residential values are going up, way up, and that shows how envied we are as a city and how desirable we are as a place to live. Post-COVID, we have every opportunity to continue our growth and progress of our city. That’s not true of a lot of cities. So, if we can keep it together and have a stable, sustainable financial platform for services, I think we’ll all receive the benefits of that.”
For more information about or to contact Cooper, visit nashville.gov/Mayors-Office.aspx. For more information about or to contact the Donelson-Hermitage Chamber of Commerce, visit donelsonhermitagechamber.com. For more information about Hub Nashville, visit nashville.gov/Services/hubNashville.aspx.