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Partnership Faces New Challenges as Result of Nashville’s Success

Written by Amanda Maher

By the late 1980s, the Nashville area was experiencing moderate economic growth – but the region was still lagging compared to its southern peers. Local stakeholders realized the region would have better success if, rather than competing against one another to attract businesses, jobs and residents, the 10 counties in the Nashville metropolitan area collaborate to achieve these goals. So in 1990, the public and private sectors came together to form Partnership 2000 (P2000).

P2000 worked tirelessly to attract, retain and help expand the local employment base. A win for one county was considered a win for them all.

As described in a recent What Works for Cities case study, P2000 saw major success. More than 850 businesses have moved to the metro area. Over 370,000 jobs have been created. And population growth is more than twice the national average, causing the region to swell to more than 1.8 million residents. By all indications, the Partnership’s efforts have been a major success.

People across the country have taken notice, and the accolades keep rolling in. CNN ranked Nashville third on its list of “Cities Where Startups Thrive,” and the city earned a top three spot on Travel + Leisure’s list of “America’s Best Cities.” Last month, Forbes named Nashville one of the top “10 Cities Americans Are Moving To Right Now.”

But now the area faces a new set of challenges: heavy traffic congestion and a shortage of affordable housing.

A recent study found that between 2004 and 2014, the number of commuters in the Nashville region increased by 24 percent. In 1995, the average Nashville commuter spent 34 annual hours in traffic delays. By 2014, the average commuter was wasting 45 hours in rush hour traffic.

Efforts to expand public transit have been anemic, at best. But as congestion grows, costing the region more than $1 billion a year, there’s a renewed focus on traffic mitigation. Earlier this year, the Tennessee legislature filed a bill that would allow local governments to create public-private partnerships with business consortiums in order to build and operate mass transit projects. Supporters say that absent “some fresh thinking, Middle Tennessee is doomed to a future of congested roads,” and that could cripple economic growth.

Meanwhile, job growth has attracted more residents to the region than there are housing units available. An estimated 100 people are moving to the region every day. Those who initially sought out Nashville for its low housing costs are now faced with rents that continue to climb. Over the past three years, home prices have jumped 58 percent, and one in four renters spend at least 50 percent of their income on rent.

A Vanderbilt University study found that low- and middle-income residents alike are feeling the pressure. “We’re talking about people who work in full-time positions,” researcher James Fraser told The Tennessean. “If our teachers can’t afford to live in the city they teach in, that’s crazy.” The affordability crisis has been going on for a while, but it’s reached a tipping point. “We need to do something now,” he says.

Unless these issues are addressed, the Partnership’s efforts over the past 25 could be dealt a major blow.

Last June, P2020 unveiled its new five-year action strategy. While promoting livability has always been one of the Partnership’s core activities, the new plan states that “addressing regional growth and affordability with viable transportation and living options” is a critical need that P2020 will focus on improving over the next five years. Already, the Nashville Area Chamber has expressed its support for a $5.4 billion public transit scenario put forth by the Metro Transit Authority.

Similarly, as stakeholders consider various alternatives to promote housing affordability, P2020 members will play a critical role in helping people understand how home prices affect quality of life and the business climate.

There’s certainly no silver bullet. Just as it took an all-hands-on-deck approach to attract and retain businesses over the past two and a half decades, it will require a cross-sector strategy to invest in public transit and promote a range of housing alternatives. And once again, P2020 will be at the forefront for the benefit of the region as a whole.

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