Prompted by the August announcement that Verizon Wireless is in the process of establishing a potentially 1,300-employee regional headquarters in Williamson County — and moving 500 current workers out of Nashville in the process — a quiet but recurrent issue in debates between mayoral candidates Bob Clement and Karl Dean has been the balancing act between local and regional business recruitment.
“I don’t think it’s gotten the attention it needs,” Dean said Friday. “Regionalism is going to be an issue where the next mayor needs to be a leader.”
“We believe that Davidson County can improve the way it works cooperatively with the State and the surrounding counties and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce on business recruitment issues,” Clement said in a Friday email.
Both candidates say they will be proactive and open about working with businesses considering a move to Davidson County, and that improving the public school system as well as urban safety are integral parts of recruitment of businesses to Nashville.
They do, however, have subtly different ways of approaching the balance between local and regional development.
The current administration supports regional business recruitment — the attracting of businesses to the 10 counties surrounding Nashville — primarily through contributions to Partnership 2010, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s regional economic development initiative.
Mayor Bill Purcell is chair of the initiative, and the mayor’s office pays out annually. Last year’s allotment was $300,0000.
Neither Clement nor Dean said they planned to do any more — or less — to support Partnership 2010 and other regional development than the current administration.
Clement says both that Nashville needs to do a “better job of strengthening our economic core,” and that economic growth “is a regional issue.”
In debates, he has said Davidson County needs to step up its efforts in competing with Williamson County and other areas. He also says Davidson County can improve its work with the Tennessee Department of Economic Development and the Chamber of Commerce.
By working cooperatively to “develop a tool kit for recruitment of businesses and industries to the Nashville area” with state and Chamber officials that can be used by all counties in the region, Clement said, a “bidding war with surrounding communities” can be avoided.
Dean said balancing Metro interests with regional development will be a significant issue for the next mayor to address, in terms of issues ranging from business recruitment to transportation and infrastructure. He said Partnership 2010 is “a good thing to support,” but said he recognizes the challenges of both working with and competing against surrounding counties for new businesses.
“There’s an element of competition that’s always there,” Dean said. “But we can’t take the mindset that growth in the surrounding counties is necessarily a bad thing for Nashville. It can be a great thing for Nashville.”
As for Verizon’s move to Williamson County, as well as the decisions of companies including Nissan North America to establish themselves in Cool Springs, Dean and Clement have both noted Nashville’s successful track record of economic growth in recent years and agree that regional development is crucial to the growth of Nashville.
However, the candidates take somewhat different stances on the effectiveness of current business recruitment efforts.
Dean, like economic development leaders of the current administration, cited Nashville’s success in attracting businesses. Dean named Caremark, Louisiana Pacific and Asurion as recent successes. He added that with the number of jobs added to Nashville in the last four years being approximately equal to the number added regionally, Nashville is “getting the lion’s share of the business.”
“I don’t consider that a good thing. I wish they had stayed in Nashville and set up here. But at the same time, we shouldn’t magnify the importance of that,” Dean said. “Any gain in the surrounding counties is not necessarily a loss for us.”
What is to be avoided, Dean said, is anything that causes a Davidson County resident to move to another county.
Clement, however, has in debates with Dean characterized Verizon Wireless’s move to Williamson County as a sign that Metro needs to improve its business recruitment. The booming economy of Williamson County, he says, is a competitor that must be addressed.
A critical issue in business recruitment — especially in regards to differences between Davidson and Williamson counties — is deployment of tax incentives. The last Nashville project to receive any significant form of local tax incentive was the 1999 establishment of Dell’s Middle Tennessee operations, which now employs 4,500.
Williamson County and the City of Franklin, however, have offered tax incentives more frequently. Verizon will receive an annual 40 percent property tax break, up to a $500,000 maximum, offered jointly by Franklin and Williamson County. Nissan was allotted more, receiving a 47 percent property tax abatement from the county expected to be worth $32.5 million. Land for the headquarters was financed, in part, by $15 million from the City of Franklin.
Both candidates say they intend to evaluate possible incentive deals on a “case-by-case basis,” and neither committed to being either more or less willing than the current administration to offering breaks.
Clement did not name specific tax programs that could be considered, or name the types of deals that might be worth government money. He did, however, say he would be open to conversations with businesses.
“I believe we must sit at the table and talk with prospective businesses about the possibility of offering tax incentives,” Clement said. “However, we cannot give away the store.”
Dean also did not commit to being more or less willing than the current administration to provide tax incentives, but he did say factors to consider would be the size of the company and number and quality of jobs provided. He also believes a high-quality public school system is “the major” attractant of businesses.
“If there’s a deal that makes sense for the city, then we ought to at least engage in a conversation about that,” Dean said. “You have to let businesses know that our door is open to talk.”