Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Bill Purcell Leaves Nashville's Highest Office After Showing What An Engaged Mayor Can Do

While we seem to be unenthusiastically backing into choosing a mayor for Memphis for the next four years, Nashville is saying farewell to one who showed what a highly effective, highly engaged mayor can accomplish.

From his election in 1999 until his last day in office a couple of weeks ago, Mayor Bill Purcell – a former member of the Tennessee House of Representatives - exceeded expectations with his coherent, clear vision of his administration, his bold plans to improve quality of life in his city and his relentless pursuit of public facilities whose design would say volumes about the kind of city Nashville aspired to be.

There was little in Mayor Purcell’s background that would have led observers to predict that he would become one of the best mayors in the U.S. He was a competent representative known largely for balancing the practical and the political and for his ability to take positions and solve problems that created a minimum of adversaries.

Athenian Of The South

And yet, freed from the limited role of legislator and ushered into the decision-making role of administrator, he flourished into an effective communicator and unusually adept manager of the consolidated government in Nashville/Davidson County. Along the way, he continued the kind of moderate political leadership – notable for its conservative fiscal policies and liberal social programs – that has been a competitive advantage for Nashville for the past three decades, dating back to at least former Mayor Richard Fulton's terms in office..

Nashville not only has outperformed Memphis in all indicators, but it has ranked among the top-tier cities for the nation. From a position as Tennessee’s Second City, Nashville moved beyond Memphis in population, economic growth, and promise, and has never looked back.

And while Nashville was establishing itself as one of the South’s leading cities – often paired with Charlotte as success stories for cities that transformed themselves – this momentum only quickened with Mr. Purcell in the mayor’s office.

Graphic Differences

To give an idea of the dichotomy between Nashville and Memphis, consider just a few indicators for the period from 2000-2005:

* Population growth in Nashville was almost twice Memphis.

* The number of immigrants attracted to Nashville was 50 percent higher.

* The percentage of families headed by single parents in Nashville was about one-third less than Memphis.

* The median household income was roughly 10 percent more in Nashville, and it was growing at a 6.3 percent rate, compared to 3.8 percent in Memphis.

* The poverty rate in Nashville was 40 percent less than Memphis, and so was the percentage of subprime loans as part of the total number of refinance loans.

* The percent increase in jobs in Nashville was 3.8, compared to .03 in Memphis. The Nashville unemployment was 25 percent less.

* Nashville had 30 percent more firms owned by African-Americans and 35 percent more women-owned firms.

* The crime rate in Nashville was 36 percent lower than Memphis, and the per capital spending for local government was 25 percent lower in Nashville than Memphis.

The Politics Of Bold Ambition

Well, you get the picture. In other words, recent years have been kind to Nashville while Memphis has grappled to decide what kind of city that it wants to be and pursues a number of unexciting strategies to claim its place in the global economy.

Some credit Nashville’s burst of success to the power of consolidated government, but the truth is that it’s all about leadership, not structure. And Nashville put together a string of leaders with one foot in the business community and one foot in politics. Most of all, Nashville business leaders drove a stake in the ground, saying what they demanded from their hometown leaders and then put their money where their mouths were. As a result, in Nashville, there is the feeling that they can do anything and that they have to because they are a big league city.

In some respects, it replicated the story of Atlanta, where strong corporate leadership and an engrained sense of civic commitment catapulted it from a sleepy Georgia city steeped in Confederate tradition to an economic dynamo that sucks up much of the young talent – especially African-American – in the Southeast today and gauges its success on international terms.


Back to Mr. Purcell, he embodied the qualities that Nashvillians have come to demand from their mayors, and he led spectacular economic growth – resulting in Nashville being dubbed the “hottest city” by economic development journals two years in a row – and he did it without giving away the store.

While our community granted 415 tax freezes to convince businesses to come here, Nashville handed out five. It was in refusing to sell their community on the cheap that Nashville set out to create a serious plan for improving the quality of the city. In addition, while Memphis sent the message that we were so unworthy that we had to bribe companies to come here, Nashville took the position that it was so special that companies were lucky to be part of it.

It was this air of success and destiny that always seem to be communicated best by Mayor Purcell.

Current Of Change

The most dramatic evidence of his success was seen last year when he was named Public Official of the Year by Governing magazine and Public Leadership in the Arts presented by Americans for the Arts. While former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen was noteworthy in his big project approach, his successor focused on quality of life. He expanded greenways, kicked off a park expansion program, enacted a “percent for art” program, led construction of a new first-rate symphony hall and remarkably (while city and county governments here were eliminating all funding for the arts) increased city funding to Nashville arts organizations by 61 percent.

Meanwhile, inside city government, Mayor Purcell implemented performance audits that greased the exit of old-time, well-connected employees and dynamited the good-old-boy network that hampered innovation in City Hall. Along the way, the audits also turned up tens of millions of dollars in savings that came from efficiencies in systems and programs.

The savings could not have come at a better time, because Mayor Purcell increased school funding $200 million during his terms and for the first time provided yearly capital funding so the school district could plan more efficiently for new schools.


And most impressive of all, he did it all with only two property tax increases, resulting in a combined tax rate significantly less – about $2.00 - than the amount paid by Memphians who receive a lower level of public services in return.

Some critics in the tourism industry complain that he moved too slowly to replace the aged convention center, and although the $500 million project is probably going to break ground in the near future, we don’t fault him for being slow to get into the “arms race” between cities’ convention center facilities, which on balance deliver extremely poor returns on their massive investments.

It’s a remarkable legacy that Mayor Purcell leaves for his former legal director, Karl Dean, who took the oath of office a couple of weeks ago. While there is much that Purcell supporters (he leaves with a 60 percent approval rating) can point to with pride, what is most impressive is the amount of change and innovation that he was able to bring to Nashville in only eight years.

Term Limits

There are many things to be learned from his style of leadership and his singular focus to his agenda. His advice as he wrapped up the last 22 months of his Administration: Nashville should enact term limits.

“I have a sense of what you can accomplish. I think two terms keeps (mayors) focused, keeps the people that work with them focused and gives them the reality and the belief that they must and can finish in those two terms."

Perhaps, when we compare Memphis and Nashville, there’s no more important lesson than this one.


LeftWingCracker said...

I think Purcell should run for Governor in 2010, in all honesty, at least he is still a Democrat.

Want to help lead the call for this???

Kerry said...

Alternately, I wonder if the Nick Clark gang could pool their money and entice him to move to Memphis for a while...

Anonymous said...

Alternately, I wonder if the Nick Clark gang could pool their money and entice him to move to Memphis for a while...

A much better idea would be just forget Memphis and move to Nashville. Let Willie have what's left of this Detroit of the South.

Smart City Consulting said...

LWC: We forgot to point out that his approval rating after eight years in office was 60%. Pretty impressive.

Anonymous said...

I understand the challenges Memphis faces, but let's not be overly generous with Purcell.
As a Nashvile resident, I have a couple of comments:
1) Purcell was never a Congressman. He's been a public defender and a lawyer in private practice, but that's not on his resume.
2) Purcell set low expectations for his term as mayor and met them. He wanted to distinguish himself from Phil Bredesen who pushed the city to aggressively move forward. Purcell ran as the "neighborhoods" mayor. If your ambition is to get sidewalks built, he was great. If not, he wasn't.
3) Nashville has been far outstripped by Williamson County when it comes to new corporate projects. That's because Purcell has refused to consider incentives to attract new companies and Franklin's mayor will. As a result, the white collar jobs are moving next door, while Nashville gets to keep the low wage, low skill employment.
I suppose Purcell COULD run for Governor, but that would mean an economic boom for Alabama or Mississippi, not Tennessee.
My two cents.

Smart City Consulting said...


Actually, his time as a lawyer and public defender is on his resume, and it's been mentioned frequently with the election of his colleague as the new mayor. They met while both serving as PD's.

It seems to us that he did a lot more than build sidewalks. You don't get recognized by Governing magazine for that. Nashville statistics don't paint the negative picture that you portray, but Williamson County, whether they like it or not, is part of Nashville. The county lines mean nothing these days, but we still praise Nashville mayors for refusing to give away their taxes to get companies. It's a short-sighted economic development policy, particularly in a day and time when most jobs are mobile and have no loyalty to place.

dwayne said...

Unfortunately, Memphis has not had a good Mayor since Edmund Orgill left office in 1960 with the possible exception of Herenton during his first two terms. After Orgill were white racists Henry Loeb and Wyeth chandler with the buffoon Ingram in the 60's. Hackett was chandler light, not with the hard edge but still exploited racial divisions.

Now Herenton has adopted the Loeb/chandler/Hackett strategy of racial division.

That's what we had while Nashville had progressives like Briley, Fulton, Bredesen, and now Purcell.

It's a wonder we have survived with our lack of leadership.

Anonymous said...

Too many haven not survived as a result of the lack of leadership.

memphis dating said...

As someone who has lived in both Memphis and Nashville, I can tell you Nashville is a better place to be single.

That said, Memphis has so much more soul and pulse than white-bred Nashville, it's not even funny.