District 23 Council Member Thom Druffel, who was sworn into office in late September, is spearheading a group of around 10 neighborhood associations with a mission to advocate for improvements in his district, which stretches from Belle Meade to Hillwood and West Meade.
More than 50 residents showed up to his first community meeting Nov. 12 at Hillwood High School. Druffel said the high attendance indicates neighborhood groups in his district share common concerns and interests.
“I think there are some real opportunities to get things done here in the West Meade area,” Druffel said. “The way I look at it, we have to show the city who we are and what we need in order to become a better and bigger voice in the decisions being made. There’s strength in numbers.”
In the long term, Druffel said he wants to see the group make progress toward identifying areas for infrastructure improvements and creating new resources for residents. The short-term goal is to recruit more neighbors to fill committees focused on issues such as beautification, education and hospitality, he said.
However, Druffel said it is possible Metro Nashville’s ongoing budget challenges—a $41.5 million shortfall identified in the fiscal year 2019-20 budget—may leave funding for future neighborhood projects in jeopardy, even with Mayor John Cooper’s stated commitment to shifting the administration’s focus from downtown to neighborhoods.
“I know you’re all wondering, ‘Well, where is the money to do any of this?’” Druffel said at the meeting. “I know it might sound crazy, but I think there’s an opportunity to make our own money.”
Several neighborhood groups in Nashville host events to fund small-scale projects in their neighborhoods, he said. He pointed to the annual home hosted by the 12 South Neighborhood Association as an example.
“I think we have the ability to generate our own money and not wait for funding from Metro [Nashville],” Druffel said. “At least for the next year, it’s going to be a very tight situation financially.”
Funding neighborhood projects
Before large-scale projects, such as new sidewalks and intersection improvements, reach neighborhoods, district council members must submit items each year to the city’s capital improvements budget, which Druffel described as a “wish list” of infrastructure projects prioritized over the next six years. Projects that cost more than $50,000 are considered capital improvements.
However, capital improvements are not made certainties by being designated and are dependent on the city’s capital spending plan, an ordinance granting agencies the authority to spend an allotted amount of money for capital improvements, according to Director of Legislative Affairs Mike Jameson.
“If the capital improvements budget is the menu, the capital spending plan is the order given to the chef,” Jameson said. “[The spending plan] is what actually allocates the money.”
On Nov. 13, Cooper announced he is working with At-Large Council Member Bob Mendes to reform how city officials submit projects for consideration in future capital spending plans.
If approved by the Metro Nashville Council on third reading Dec. 17, which had not occurred as of press time, the new rules would require public works projects to be fully funded before construction begins.
“I started working in 2016 with then-Council Member Cooper to tighten the checks and balances on capital spending,” Mendes said in a statement. “I’m glad to continue that work. This new legislation will make the city government provide more and better info about the cost of big capital projects.”
Druffel said he submitted three projects in late October for consideration in the FY 2020-21 capital improvements budget, which will be adopted by the Metro Council in June. His proposed projects include the installation of a boardwalk connecting Hillwood High School and West Meade Pool and Tennis; a trail at the West Meade Waterfall off Jocelyn Hollow Road; and a dog park and playground equipment for the park located at the corner of Carnavon Parkway and Highway 70.
Although Druffel is uncertain whether the projects will be approved for the budget, he plans to seek additional feedback from residents.
“If we’re able to get [a boardwalk] and it’s successful, it could work in other areas ... We could be getting boardwalks at a much faster pace than we’re able to get sidewalks,” Druffel said.
The Nashville Neighborhood Alliance, an organization incorporated in 1991 with a mission to enhance the quality of life in neighborhoods, has reported the presence of more than 110 neighborhood associations in Nashville.
One of the newest neighborhood groups is the West Meade Neighborhood Association, which hosted its first meeting Oct. 24, according to Co-chairs Wayne Underhill and Paul Garland. The group is one of four West Meade associations involved with Druffel’s group of neighborhood associations.
Underhill, who moved to West Meade more than 30 years ago, said the association’s mission is to be a resource for neighbors.
“Nashville’s growing, and it’s been growing for years,” Underhill said. “It’s important to us in West Meade to keep things the way they are. We’re so close to downtown, but it doesn’t feel that way.”
Druffel has recruited Commissioner Rusty Moore to represent the city of Belle Meade. Belle Meade residents share similar priorities as other residents in the district, Moore said.
“What we’re really focusing on as a commission are the exact same things other nearby neighborhoods are pushing for,” Moore said. “Traffic calming is the number one thing. At every one of our monthly meetings, there is someone there from a different street because it has become a cut-through.”
To address traffic concerns in the area, the city is in the early stages of drafting legislation to left turns at Belle Meade Boulevard onto Harding Road as well as to eliminate the left-turn lane from Jackson onto Harding Road, Moore said.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in Belle Meade or on the other side of Harding [Road]—the things that happen in this district impact all of us,” Druffel said. “If the time comes when we do all have to band together for something, we’ll have a much better chance in leveraging our needs because we’ll have a larger collective voice.”