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For mayoral candidate Matt Wiltshire, it’s all about timing. Spend more than a few minutes talking to the Nashville native about the issues facing the city, and he’ll tell you he’s been preparing for this moment for a while. Housing problems? He’s spent the past few years at the Metro Development and Housing Agency working on just that. Economic issues? He worked for three mayors on adding jobs to the city. He talked with the Banner about what he thinks the biggest problems facing the next mayor will be.
Why do you want to be mayor?
So that every person in this city has a real opportunity to fulfill their dreams and realize their full potential. You know, I served as the chair of the board of Hands On Nashville during the 2010 flood. And in that role, I saw the city come together and witnessed what we could accomplish when the private sector, the public sector and the nonprofit sector work together. That experience inspired me to leave a successful career in the private sector and to take on a big challenge at the time for the city — unemployment. And then over the next eight years, working with three different mayors, we were able to bring the city's unemployment rate down from more than 8 percent to 2 percent, the lowest of any city in the country. Then, looking at the next big challenge the city was facing, I left the mayor's office and went to work at MDHA and worked on affordable housing. And through public-private partnerships, we were able to bring about 4,000 new units of affordable housing on line over just a few years. And so last year, nine months ago, when I looked around the city, I thought there were a number of big challenges the city was facing. And so as I've done in the past, I stepped up to take on the biggest challenges that the city was facing.
Well let's start with affordable housing because you brought it up. I think the numbers that you've said publicly are, between MDHA and partnerships, you got more than 3,500 units built. Correct me on the exact numbers. The problem is that right now we need 30,000 new units. How does a mayor put more housing into the marketplace to address not only soaring home prices but also soaring rents?
The numbers are 500 units of mixed-income housing over three years in six different developments at MDHA during the three years that I was there, and 3,500 units of private sector development. And these were primarily low-income housing tax credit developments to help make those deals pencil. But the reality is, there is no one solution. If it were that simple, it would have happened already. I think there are a variety of things that need to be done. One is to continue and, in fact, accelerate this work. So, redeveloping areas of concentrated poverty in the core of the city, close to where the most jobs are in demand, into thriving mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhoods. That's at MDHA properties. But as you alluded to, the private sector owns and controls 95 percent of the housing in our county. And we need to incentivize the private sector to develop more affordable housing opportunities. And affordable housing means something different to each person. It's housing that is affordable and attainable for each person. That comes in a variety of price points. And so part of that means developing more housing that's affordable to folks who are in a lower income, but it also just means increasing the supply overall. And that comes through streamlining and efficiencies within Metro government.
You alluded to another part of your résumé, which was doing economic and community development (ECD) work for both Mayor Dean and for Mayor Barry. But there's some interesting by-products from that. We're paying $12 million a year this year to the Omni Hotel in incentives. We're going to pay $15 million next year to the Omni, for what is the most profitable hotel in the company’s portfolio right now. And so I understand that something was necessary in order to get the Omni to sign a contract in the middle of a recession. But we're living with some incentive deals now in a thriving economy that are causing us to pay out a lot of money as a city. What is your approach on incentives going to be as a mayor? And do you think that we should continue to aggressively incentivize companies and businesses like hotels to come here?
I think that different tools are appropriate for different times. And as you alluded to when the unemployment rate in Nashville was over 8 percent, we were very aggressive about trying to bring jobs for Nashvillians. Folks were struggling. Their homes were being foreclosed on. Folks were losing their jobs. And by creating job opportunities for Nashvillians, there were a lot of people who were able to begin careers. And in fact, when the labor market is tight, that is the time when folks who otherwise might not get a chance, they might not get a shot, get a real chance, and all some were lacking was a chance, and they got a chance to get a job and build a career. So adding jobs for Nashvillians is something that I'm very proud of. Now, the Omni deal that you referenced was done before I joined the mayor's office.
I understand that, but it was similar to a number of other deals that you guys were doing at the time.
Absolutely. The Omni deal was done before, before my time in office. But in all honesty, I think some of these deals that look so terrible, in retrospect, are a sign of how successful the city has been. Right? The city is thriving. The city is so successful — now folks have jobs, in part because of some investments that were made. And so, you know, there is certainly a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking today looking at deals that were done now 12 or 15 years ago. Or in the case of the Titans deal, almost 25 years ago. So the answer to your question is yes, different times require different tools and different strategies. And even during my eight years as the director of economic development, there was a significant transition in how aggressive we were at incentivizing new jobs for Nashvillians. Because you don't pour gasoline on a burning fire. And so yes, different times require different tools. I've done that in the past, and certainly would do that going forward. There isn't a categorical answer to your question, because who knows what the economy looks like, or what the overall situation in Nashville looks like, 10 years from now,
When you poll Nashvillians on the direction of the city, for the past 18 months to two years, they've persistently said they think Nashville is on the wrong track. And you hear that sort of undercurrent in a lot of different things. Do you think Nashville is on the right track or the wrong track right now?
I think Nashville is a city of virtually unlimited potential. But right now, we are not taking full advantage of that potential. And that's what inspired me to get into this race nine months ago. Housing here is unaffordable for far too many people. Simply, the city simply doesn't feel as safe as it used to. And there are some big challenges that we're facing. But I've tackled big problems before. And my measure for Nashville’s success isn't simply being on the right track. It's about making Nashville the very best city in America, where everyone can fulfill their dreams.
This comes up in almost every discussion because of the sheer amount of legislation aimed at Nashville. How would you describe the city and state's relationship right now? And what can be done to improve it?
It's broken. And it doesn't have to be. There clearly are going to be policy differences between how the state wants to approach certain issues and how a majority of folks in Nashville want to approach those issues. And I think those differences are very real. I'm hopeful that we can bridge some of those over time. But it starts with the mayor, and I hope members of legislature and the governor's office, extending a hand and building relationships and understanding each other, getting to know each other and working in areas where there is agreement. And I've got a track record of having done that. I worked with now-Sen. — but then-Commissioner — [Bill] Hagerty, when he was at ECD, with Commissioner Randy Boyd, who's now at UT, and with Commissioner Bobby Roth. So I have done that work, building a bridge working on shared goals and objectives. And I think we can do that. And that does not mean that you back down from your principles. But I think, in fact, when you build a relationship with someone, you can disagree without being disagreeable. And you can stand even more firmly on your principles, because you've built that foundation of a relationship.
Let me push back on that just a little bit, because the things that you were working on with Republican ECD commissioners are often economic items for which the state had an interest. But what about on issues where the city and state are in diametrically opposed positions? For instance, there's a proposal that's going to pass — maybe by the time this interview runs — that would cut the size of the council. There have been proposals to cut funding streams that were dedicated to build the Music City Center. There any number of other issues where there's not an interest that the city and state share? How do you approach those?
I think there is a shared interest in the success of Nashville. The taxes generated in Nashville are literally paying for teachers in counties around the state. And what has happened is that there is a breakdown in trust. There has been a breakdown in trust that has spilled over. And you're right, at this point that relationship is so broken. Between the council and the legislature and the mayor's office, there is a fundamental breakdown of trust and relationships. And in that environment, all kinds of things get put on the table. But we didn't get here overnight, and we're not going to be able to get out of it overnight. I do believe by building relationships, you can do that. And I'll just simply point you to the relationship between the state legislature and Memphis, another blue city in the state, and you don't see nearly this acrimonious relationship. And I will give Mayor [Jim] Strickland credit. My understanding is he put forth a lot of effort to build relationships with folks in the legislature over time, and that effort and investment has paid off. And I think that we can do the same thing.
A decade ago, Mayor Karl Dean put forth an Amp transit proposal that got shut down. The Barry administration was behind a transit referendum, which was shot down. You know, we're another decade into a transit problem that only gets worse every day. What can the city’s mayor do about transit?
The transportation infrastructure in Nashville needs to work so that parents and employers can spend more time with their families and less time sitting in vehicles. And there are a variety of initiatives that we need to undertake to make that happen. Operationally, I think there are some improvements to extend the hours of service and to increase the frequency of the bus system. And I think there's some things that we can do to make our built environment better. I've been very outspoken about my support for building transit-oriented redevelopment — like what’s happening in Donelson and Madison — and building up neighborhood nodes so that folks can live and work in proximity and neighborhoods. And I think that's a great thing. In terms of the overall transportation network, maybe you know this because you were late for this interview because of traffic. The reality is in Nashville, we don't have a hub and spoke system. And you know this: Folks live in Bellevue, work downtown; they live downtown, work in Hendersonville; live in Hendersonville, work in Brentwood; live in Brentwood, work in Donelson. And so a large-scale mass transit system is unlikely to solve the traffic issues we have today. But beginning to build a skeleton on which our city can grow, puts us in a good position for the future. And the first investment that I would make in that — and you asked, “What can a mayor do?” — is we should have dedicated-lane mass transit from the airport to downtown. And that should run along Murfreesboro Road. And I think that there are huge opportunities to put affordable housing at transit stops so that workers can get downtown or out to the airport, which is a large employer, without having to pay $20, $30 or $40 for parking. And so by building that first investment, I think we can build a track record of success and take that momentum forward to have a more broad-scale structure. But the critique of the Amp was that there wasn't right-of-way available on West End. There's lots of right-of-way available on Murfreesboro Pike. The No. 55 route down Murfreesboro Pike is the highest-ridership bus route that we have in Nashville. And the airport can actually pay for all of the infrastructure from the airport to the first stop. So I think that is a prudent initial investment in building the kind of transportation infrastructure that will take our city forward.
The council is about to take up the Titans stadium proposal. Do you support it or not?
I am opposed to subsidies for sports teams. However, I am for the Titans deal. I believe two things: one, that a person's word, or in this case a city's word, is its bond. And we have an agreement, a written lease that commits the city to certain responsibilities. And we should not renegotiate old deals. You brought up the Omni deal previously. That deal looks tough in retrospect, but as you referenced at the time, it was the best deal. And the Titans deal was voted on by a majority of Nashvillians as being the best thing for the city. So your word is your bond. Second, I believe that the funding streams for the new stadium, the $500 million grant from the state and the 1 percent increase in hotel-occupancy taxes are a much better source of funding than property taxes and sales taxes from Nashvillians. Now, I also have very real concerns about investing hundreds of millions of dollars in new infrastructure to build a new neighborhood downtown when we have very significant needs in existing neighborhoods around the county. So as it relates specifically to the Titans stadium financing deal, I'm in favor of that as presented and as I understand it but more broadly, for investing in other places before we build a new neighborhood downtown.