Courtney Pogue

Courtney Pogue

Courtney Pogue has been Mayor John Cooper’s director of economic and community development for about nine months, since he moved from a similar position in Dallas. 

He took over an office that had seen a lot of change under Cooper. Jamari Brown, a holdover from the Briley administration, stepped down a few months into Cooper’s tenure (and less than a year after starting the job). The position was vacant for more than six months before Pogue took over. 

But it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing, and Pogue opened up in a recent interview with the Scene. He expressed frustration about a lack of direction in city government and a tendency to focus on newsmaking economic development deals — like those with Oracle or Amazon — rather than the kind of work that can bring grocery stores or other vital businesses to underserved neighborhoods. Read our interview below.

What has your time as economic and community development director been like?

It’s been different. [We’re] waiting on getting a strategy done for the city to talk about economic development, and Nashville’s never really had a strategy put in place for the city, per se. There’s a regional plan put out by the [Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce].

Mainly the Chamber does a lot of business-attraction work — what you see in the headlines — but as far as the nuances of doing the various buckets of economic development in the sense of workforce, small business and retention and expansion, that’s not really been a concerted effort in this city in some time.

It is our hope to get that up and going. It’s been roughly nine months. In Dallas I was up and going with a plan in roughly five months. I guess we’re somewhat behind.

When a lot of people think of economic development and the type of job that you have, we think of those big recruitment pitches. And so you’re saying it’s the other side of that role that has not really been paid attention to?

Yeah, basically small business, entrepreneurship — which is a concerted effort to focus on small businesses and provide ongoing resources both on a technical side and a capital formation side. There has never been an effort to do that in the city of Nashville.

Do you feel optimistic at all about the possibility of getting some of that done?

I’m patiently waiting. We’re in month nine. We’ll see what happens. That was one of the first things I laid out and noticed, that there was a lack of focus on small business, entrepreneurship and workforce development. [We need to] look at business attraction, the community attracting grocery stores and other retail and all the other amenities that some of the communities need, especially in North Nashville and Southeast Nashville, where support for those businesses is lacking.

How would you do that if you had your way?

Well, we’d allocate a plan. That was the first thing I wanted to lay out, a strategy for economic development. Look at your top 30 cities: They all have plans for economic development as it relates to the city itself.

We have a regional plan for the Chamber, but not a localized plan to focus on the city itself and the various components of the city, being the various communities that make up a city. To address the needs of North Nashville, to address the needs of Southeast Nashville, to address food insecurity, to address workforce development, to address small business development, entrepreneurship, all those things that make up the various buckets of economic development.

Typically you have a plan or strategy that relates to economic development and how we focus city investments on key areas, but also look at forming true public-private partnerships to address the needs of a community.

Why did you want this job when you took it?

I saw a new challenge. Dallas, when I came on board we kicked off the first plan. We kicked it off when we got there, but also we revamped a number of programs and policies around economic development along with housing. A number of things were reformatted in Dallas when I got there. There was support from the mayor, support from the city manager and various departments to get that done. We [were] making investments for large corporate attraction, but also we were making investments in supporting small businesses, entrepreneurship, workforce development, really supporting those considered hard to employ, from the formerly incarcerated to opportunity youth [ages] 16 to 24 to single-parent households. All those things aligned. Looking at major projects in the community in underserved markets and utilizing the city’s toolbox in terms of new market tax credits, tax increment financing, the opportunity zone program and other components to jump-start that in Dallas.

I thought we could do the same thing here. It’s been a little slow going. I’m cautiously optimistic we can get something going in the near future, but it has been nine months.

Is there a lack of interest from the council or the mayor? What’s slowing you down?

Resources. First and foremost, get the resources in place to really address what’s going on. We look at business here in Nashville and the need to recover — outside of the CARES program, we really haven’t done anything for them, especially when it comes to small businesses.

You look at the data points of companies that have 50 or less employees and have revenues less than a million dollars, that is roughly 60 percent of the businesses in Nashville. We’re really a small-business city. It’s really to our advantage to find resources to support small businesses throughout the city, but also really focus on some efforts to support businesses from a technical-assistance standpoint and a capital standpoint in some of those underserved areas — North Nashville, Southeast Nashville.

Do you see much interest on the funding side from either the council or the mayor?

I think there’s momentum. I think it’s a little slow going, but there’s some momentum out there to really address those needs. I’m somewhat optimistic — somewhat. Is it going as fast as I’m used to? No. Hopefully we’ll get there sometime next year and jump-start some programming and really address the needs of the community based on the data points we’re seeing, from the standpoint of providing capital in North Nashville [and] 37208, to providing capital in Bordeaux, to providing capital in Antioch and other parts of Nashville to make sure there are resources to support businesses both from a technical side but also from a capital standpoint.

I’ve been reading some articles in other publications about how some of the businesses feel neglected in the sense that there’s never really been an effort to address some of their needs. They feel [like they’re] not at the table. We’ve been really focused on large-scale corporate attraction, which we do very well, but I think there’s definitely been a miss in the sense of how do we support our local and small businesses here.

Who has been a good partner either in or outside government?

I think there’s definitely support. I think it needs to be coordinated. It’s a little uncoordinated right now. I think we’re all kind of saying the same thing, but we’re not in the same room saying it. That’s why I want to kick off a plan in which we’re all in the same room and realize who’s on first, who’s on second, who’s on third and so on. You have support, but it’s not coordinated. It’s been fragmented and a hodgepodge of things.

The Chamber does a very good job at recruitment along with the state, but I think where we need to focus is who’s gonna do some of the other things that are really key to having a well-balanced and successful Nashville, in the sense of small businesses and supporting entrepreneurship.

And then you look at how do you support our workforce, in the sense of how do we find jobs and individuals in North Nashville and Antioch and get them connected to jobs in the core of the city, utilizing transportation and other aspects to make sure everyone is involved in growth in the city.

There’s only one mainline grocery store in Bordeaux, so how do we address providing quality housing in Bordeaux but also providing places of quality retail in Bordeaux and North Nashville? And providing retail in Antioch and parts of Southeast Nashville by utilizing new platforms of development and redevelopment and incubating new developers to come to the table and provide new resources to help them launch and address the needs of their communities?

What is a way that government can incentivize something like the building of a grocery store in an underserved neighborhood?

Typically you have a mandate from government if it’s an under-incentivized or under-invested community. I’ve seen markets where you do really focus on certain sites, you work with local community developers and really help spearhead their efforts to attract the grocery store. There are ways to go engage with some of the groceries themselves, saying, “I have a site and I want to market my site to XYZ Corporation.”

Sort of like how you attract one of these larger businesses?

It’s pretty much the same way. There’s a retail convention in Las Vegas. There are ways in which communities can market themselves. You engage with retailers and real estate developers about your community and pitch sites to them.

It’s been successful. In Chicago we took a site on the South Side of Chicago, and we engaged with a few developers to market a site that was crime-infested, had a former liquor store on it and had not been invested in for a number of years. We were able to pitch that site to a developer. From there we brought in a Walmart neighborhood store, brought in 155 units of housing. There are ways to pitch a site to a developer to market that and attract a grocer or a retail tenant to an area.

All the efforts must align. It has to be more of a concerted effort showing the retailers that the city is committed to this area, committed to providing resources. If you have a developer that’s really patient, willing to work with the community to attract this quality initiative, it’s a true public-private partnership. You look at Bordeaux, North Nashville — it needs to be a true public-private partnership in which Metro and the private sector and all our partners are at the table helping to attract what is needed in the community, and we know that’s a grocery store or some kind of quality retail.

You said things are moving slower here than in Dallas. Have you felt stymied or sidelined or anything like that?

I think everyone has a different style of managing. I look at my previous positions, I engaged with city officials, leadership, on a biweekly basis. I think we all learned the styles of management here. I’m ... being a little patient here, learning some patience, and adjusting to that. In Dallas I met with city leadership and city management on a biweekly basis, met with the mayor on a monthly basis.

How frequently do you meet with the mayor here?

I’m not even going to answer that question. I’m patient and looking for change.

Nashville is growing, but how do we make sure that everyone benefits in the growth of Nashville? I’m hopeful next year we can address these things and make improvements that are sorely needed.

How is Nashville different from Chicago and Dallas? What are some of the different challenges?

I think we’re growing at an accelerated pace. We’ve got a lot of people relocating. We need to make sure we’re providing all the resources and housing needs for everyone in Nashville and [everyone who’s] coming to Nashville. I’ve had my challenges trying to find a house.

Here I am experiencing challenges finding housing, but I imagine individuals at different income bands are having the same challenges. It’s something we all need to address. We don’t really have a true housing policy in Nashville. I think that’s something we’re working on next year.

It’s the goal here to have alignment between the housing policy but also having a plan for economic development, so I was hopeful we would have something kicked off earlier than where we’re at now, but hopefully we’ll have something kicked off in the first quarter of next year.

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