Nashville's Latest Hit? The City Itself

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NASHVILLE -- Portland knows the feeling. Austin had it once, too. So did Dallas. Even Las Vegas enjoyed a brief moment as the nation's "it" city.

Now, it's Nashville's turn.

Here in a city once embarrassed by its Grand Ole Opry roots, a place that sat on the sidelines while its Southern sisters boomed economically, it is hard to find a resident who does not break into the goofy grin of the newly popular when the subject of Nashville's status comes up.

Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat in his second term, is the head cheerleader.

"It's good to be Nashville right now," he said during a recent tour of his favorite civic sites, the biggest of which is a publicly financed gamble: a new $623 million downtown convention center complex that is the one of the most expensive public projects in Tennessee history.

The city remains traditionally Southern in its sensibility, but it has taken on the luster of the current. On a Venn diagram, the place where conservative Christians and hipsters overlap would be today's Nashville.

Flush with young new residents and alive with immigrants, tourists and music, the city made its way to the top of all kinds of lists in 2012.

A Gallup poll ranked it in the top five regions for job growth. A national entrepreneurs' group called it one of the best places to begin a technology start-up. Critics admire its growing food scene. GQ magazine declared it simply "Nowville."

And then there is the television show. "Nashville," a song-filled ABC drama about two warring country divas, had its premiere in October with nine million viewers. It appears to be doing for the city of 610,000 people what the prime-time soap opera "Dallas" did for that Texas city in the 1980s.

"You can't buy that," Mr. Dean said. "The city looks great in it."

Different regions capture the nation's fancy for different reasons. Sometimes, as with Silicon Valley, innovation and economic engines drive it. Other times, it's a bold civic event, like the Olympics, or a cultural wave, like the way grunge music elevated Seattle.

Here in a fast-growing metropolitan region with more than 1.6 million people, the ingredients for Nashville's rise are as much economic as they are cultural and, critics worry, could be as fleeting as its fame.

"People are too smug about how fortunate we are now," said the Southern journalist John Egerton, 77, who has lived in Nashville since the 1970s.

"We ought to be paying more attention to how many people we have who are ill-fed and ill-housed and ill-educated," he said.

Many will argue that the city's schools need improvement, and although it remains more progressive on social issues than Tennessee as a whole, the city, with its largely white population, still struggles with a legacy of segregation and has had public battles over immigration and sexual orientation.From an economic standpoint, it has been a measured rise. When the housing boom hit the South, Nashville, long a sleepy capital city with a Bible Belt sensibility, did not reap the financial gains seen in cities like Atlanta, whose metropolitan region is more than three times its size.

But Nashville's modest growth meant a softer fall and a quicker path out of recession. By July 2012, real estate closings were up 28 percent over the previous year. Unemployment in Davidson County, which includes Nashville, is about 5.7 percent, compared with 7.8 percent nationally, and job growth is predicted to rise by 18 percent in next five years, said Garrett Harper, vice president for research with the Nashville Chamber of Commerce.

He and others attribute Nashville's stability and current economic health to a staid mix of employers in fields like health care management, religious publishing, car manufacturing and higher education, led by Vanderbilt University.

By some estimates, half of the nation's health care plans are run by companies in the Nashville area.

"Health care is countercyclical," he said. "It inoculates the city against a lot of the winds that blow."

But the music industry is the bedrock of Nashville's economy. In the past two decades, country music has grown into a national darling. The city has attracted musicians and producers whose work moves beyond the twang and heartache.

On a recent evening, Nashville's once-seedy honky-tonk district was jammed with young hopefuls pulling guitars out of Hondas, a bus from "America's Got Talent" and Aerosmith fans heading to the Bridgestone Arena.

It is not uncommon to see the power couple Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman show up at a popular restaurant, or to pass Vince Gill on the street.

Music celebrities are attracted to a state with no income tax and a ready-made talent pool. But they also just like it.

Jennifer Nettles, of the country duo Sugarland, spent 17 years in Atlanta and has been dipping in and out of New York and Nashville for years. She recently bought a farm here, had a baby and is settling in with her husband, Justin Miller.

"Part of what is really attractive about Nashville right now is that it isn't Atlanta, and I love Atlanta," she said. "There's a bit of charm and a richness a city the size of Nashville allows for."

As if to underscore Nashville's position in the nation's musical hierarchy, the city hosted the annual Grammy nomination concert in December. It was the first time the show wasn't held in Los Angeles.

But to be a truly great city, some skeptics argue, it's got to be a place that tends to its residents first and tourists second.

The city's politicians are banking on the tourists. At the center of the plan is the Music City Center, a huge convention center whose main section is shaped like a giant guitar laid on its back.

It sits on 19 downtown acres and is attached to both the Country Music Hall of Fame and an 800-room, $270 million Omni Hotel, which is expected to open in the fall.

To pay for it all, the city offered generous tax breaks and based public financing on increased hotel and rental car fees and taxes. To lure the hotel, for example, the city discounted property taxes by more than 60 percent for 25 years.

The idea was to help the city land bigger conventions, like the National Rifle Association conference, which will bring 48,000 people to the city in 2015.

But using generous economic incentives and relying on conventions has been called an outdated economic strategy.

"This was probably a good idea in 1985. And probably a good idea in 1995, said Emily Evans, a member of the region's Metropolitan Council. "But in 2012, the momentum for that kind of economic development has past."

She once called the convention center a "riverboat gamble."

"In giving away your tax base for the purpose of expanding your tax base in the future," Ms. Evans said, "you make it difficult to deliver on the fundamentals, the things that make your city livable, like parks and roads and schools."

Mr. Dean, a former city lawyer who became mayor in 2007 and led the city's recovery from historic floods in 2010, said the project, which got under way during the recession, has been a fight every step of the way.

"The gains for the city are real and tangible," he said.

The mayor has orchestrated more than a dozen tax incentive deals over the past few years. Most recently, he arranged a $66 million incentive package to help the health care giant HCA Holdings move part of its Nashville operations to new midtown high-rise buildings.

He acknowledges that more needs to be done on transportation and education, but in the meantime, he, like most of Nashville's residents, is enjoying its ride.

"I love the rhythm of this town and the pace of it and the tone of it," said Mr. Egerton, the writer. "I think Nashville is a big unfinished song."

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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