Megan Barry knows all about making an impact. She may only have been mayor of Nashville for 18 months but her fellow mayors around the country have already sat up and taken note. When American mayors were asked to name a new mayor to “keep an eye on” in a Politico What Works survey last August, Mayor Barry came joint second, behind first-placed Mayors Adler and Walsh of Austin and Boston respectively.
So, what’s her secret? She says that she has been able to hit the ground running, thanks in large part to having served on the city council for the previous eight years. “Having that background and that history is really good because you have a deeper understanding of what is going on in the city,” she says. “And it also gives you context because a lot of the stuff that I helped pass when I was on the Metro Council is stuff that, as mayor, I now have to implement or live with.”
That said, she does admit that her legislative experience didn’t prepare her for everything. “I thought I had a pretty good handle on all that had to happen,” she concedes. “But the city has 10,000 employees with 70 departments and a $2.1 billion budget and is a very complex organisation. I think this has been more eye-opening than perhaps I had anticipated. It’s more like being a CEO than I thought it would be.”
Hitting the high notes
Think Nashville and you’re most likely to think music – and perhaps the award-winning TV series of the same name. But let’s face it, it’s not known as “Music City” or the “songwriting capital of the world” for nothing. While most famous for its country music, it is also a hub for pretty much any genre you can name, and many the city’s 130 venues offer live music every night of the year.
World-famous music, though, is not the only thing Nashville has to offer. It is also home to many a healthcare provider, so much so that the industry supports hundreds of thousands of jobs (far more than the music industry does) and contributes billions of dollars to the local economy. Throw in a thriving foodie scene, burgeoning tourism industry and a high quality of living and you can see why it has experienced substantial job and economic growth in recent years. Such has been its meteoric rise, however, that Mayor Barry is tasked with ensuring that the boom is sustainable. No easy task, it transpires.
“Nashville is incredibly unique in that we are experiencing this unprecedented growth. We have seen a 20% job growth since 2009 and this is the 10th highest in the country. So we are adding jobs and our businesses are seeing the economic impact. We need to find the workers to fill these jobs and make sure that, as we grow, we are being intentional with the growth, so it doesn’t outpace what Nashvillians want to see.”
Another consequence of Nashville’s boom has been increased strain on the city’s transport infrastructure – a fact of which Mayor Barry is all too aware. Indeed, when she had a surprise phone call with President Trump in January, she made her pitch for some federal transport dollars. “Transportation continues to be a huge issue all across the board,” she admits. “We are a region where we have people come in and out of our county every day, but 50% of them don’t live here – they just come here to work. So getting them in and out is really critical.”
From idea to implementation
Taking transport as an example, there is no doubt that the mayor has a wide array of initiatives under way to help deal with traffic problems. This includes greater coordination between various local, regional, state and federal departments, agencies and organisations; a refresh of traffic signal phasing to cut the waiting time at lights; new real-time transit information for the local bus network; and a partnership between the Metro Transit Authority and ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft.
It all sounds good on paper, but how is she going to ensure that it achieves the desired impact? She admits that despite her collegial style, it’s nigh on impossible to do the job without encountering some form of opposition along the way – something she didn’t realise before assuming office. “The day after you’re elected is probably the one day when everybody is your friend,” she says. “But from that moment onwards you are never going to make everybody happy, so you have got to find the ground where you can make the best decision for the city that you are governing.”
Making these decisions, she adds, means actual doing – not just talking. “One of the things that I think often happens with government especially is that we do a lot of studies and plans,” she admits. “We spend a lot of time on conversation, but my leadership style is about talking that talk and turning it into action. We have to be accountable to citizens for the outcomes, and so making sure that we’re not just talking but doing is our opportunity.”
And she is quick to admit that government can’t do it all by itself. “You have to have those critical partners in the community – everything from business organisations to the not-for-profits to the faith community – they all play a role in helping move the agenda forward,” she says, “And so it is critical to have strong relationships.”
This emphasis on collaboration is a direct reflection of her focus on inclusivity – something that was mentioned in both her inaugural speech and her first “State of Metro” address last April, which included prayers and blessings from religious leaders of Christian, Islam and Jewish faith. It also perhaps reflects the fact that her election 18 months ago was non-partisan. Unlikely as it may seen to Washington-watchers from overseas, many cities and municipalities hold elections which are not electoral jousts between Democrats and Republicans.
“Obviously the state and local level is a whole different ball game, but sometimes at the local level you see this non-partisanship,” she says. “With non-partisan elections the party component doesn’t come into play. I myself am a Democrat, but you don’t have the party machinery that is trying to sway the voters either way, which I guess is a good thing.”
Leading over the horizon
Mayor Barry – who moved to Nashville from her native California – clearly has big ambitions for her adopted home city. But she is also keen to stress that Nashville has its own USP that it should hold onto even as it continues to expand. “Our secret sauce is a combination of two things,” she says. “The first is I think we are a progressive and pro-business city. This means that we concentrate equally on making sure that we are warm and welcoming to everyone but also making sure that our businesses are strong. The other reason that I think makes Nashville different is that we are a community that says ‘what can I do for you?’ not ‘what can you do for me?’ You sense that in every interaction that you have.”
Such interactions occur every day, especially for Mayor Barry – who is the first woman to hold mayoral office in Nashville. “I was walking in a parade not too long ago and we were passing four little girls sitting on the stoop,” she recalls. “Someone yelled out ‘here comes the mayor’, and there happened to be some guys walking behind me and all the little girls looked behind me and asked ‘which one is he?’ So I walked over to them and said ‘actually I am the mayor’, and one of them said to me ‘you mean a girl can be the mayor?’ If you can see it, you can be it – and I love that I was able to be in that moment, so that those little girls can see what is possible.”
Seeing what is possible. It’s a line that encapsulates Mayor Barry’s success to date – and it’s a success that shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. Quite the opposite, actually.
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