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Mayors discuss key themes for creating sustainable communities

by Sarah Jawaid, National Housing Conference

Solutions for Sustainable Communities: 2011 Learning Conference on State and Local Housing Policy kicked off today, Monday, September 26 with a conversation between former mayor of Meridian, Miss., and president of Reconnecting America, John Robert Smith; and current mayor of Nashville, Tenn., Karl Dean.

Smith moderated the panel and shared a statement that being mayor can be the best or worse job as an elected representative because of the direct impact initiatives have on a community. Using his example as mayor of Meridian as a starting point, Smith asked Mayor Dean a series of questions on Nashville’s vision, including expanding transit options, infrastructure improvements, job creation, private sector investment, regional coordination, and green initiatives.

Mayor Dean highlighted the importance of transit investments to stay nationally competitive, citing Charlotte and Austin as examples of cities who have built light rail lines in the last two years. He also said that cities cannot wait for federal funding to aid these initiatives. Cities need to figure out how to cobble together resources to make transit projects happen.

Nashville has set a goal to become one of the greenest cities in the Southeast by encouraging biking/walking, green building and a $5 million investment in open space conservation. In addition to this push for environmental initiatives, Mayor Dean stated the importance of increasing density in the sprawling city so people can drive less to get to work and have better access to goods and services. The addition of transit lines will unquestionably bring up opportunities to build more dense around transit stations.

Affordable housing around transit stations is also an area of importance for the Mayor. He said the proposed cuts in federal housing programs such as CDBG and HOME grants could be catastrophic for the creation of affordable housing, stating the need for a dedicated funding source.

Mayor Dean also discussed the importance of regional coordination, highlighting an initiative called “The Power of 10” which brings together MPOs to learn from each other on transportation issues, land use, infrastructure, open space conversation, air and water quality/quantity and regional economic competitiveness.

In the Music City, Mayor Dean has a vision to make a compelling downtown area that is both economically vibrant by creating jobs for 50% of the economy based in the hospitality industry and a center for arts and culture. The city secured private financing for the Omni Hotel in downtown which is connected to an expansion of the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum and a convention center funded mostly by hotel and motel taxes.

The opening plenary session was sponsored by AARP Foundation, represented by Vivian Vasallo, who welcomed the crowd and stated the importance of ensuring the aging population has access to healthy and safe communities. The Ford Foundation and conference sponsor was represented by Lisa Davis who concluded the session with closing remarks on Foundation’s work through its Metropolitan Opportunity Initiative.

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