People are flocking to Nashville, and it’s ranked as one of America’s best cities with 10% population growth and 21% employment growth since 2010. Technology jobs are booming, and it’s on Business Insider’s list of the hottest American cities of 2016.
Nashville is known as Music City, but the label, expansive though it is, actually undersells the city’s cultural offerings. Nashville has two professional sports teams, the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and the Nashville Predators of the NHL, along with a minor league baseball team called, appropriately, the Nashville Sounds. With a 3-13 record, the Titans were weak in 2015, but the Predators advanced deep into the NHL playoffs.Nashville has a food scene that, at its height if not its breadth, rivals those of New York and San Francisco; foodies could happily spend a couple of weeks eating around Nashville without running out of inventive and surprising restaurants to sample. Nashville’s institutions of high culture, including the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, are impressive for a small city; the Schermerhorn excels by any standard. There is a ballet and an opera and a repertory theater, as well as burgeoning art and fashion scenes. Nashville has one major international research university, Vanderbilt, and a number of regional ones, including Belmont, Fisk, Meharry Medical College and Tennessee State, that funnel youth, energy, creativity and labor into the city. Many of these cultural institutions are supported by local families—including the Frists, the Ingrams, the Burchams, the McWhorters and the Turners—whose philanthropy and engagement have made an enormous impact.
All of this is underpinned by a business culture, centered around healthcare and entrepreneurship, that is national in scope but has a huge regional impact; while not as identified with Nashville as the music business, the healthcare industry is the greatest contributor to the Nashville economy. One estimate from the Health Care Council, a trade group, puts the economic impact of the healthcare industry on Nashville at $38 billion, while music generates $10 billion. Right now Nashville has an unemployment rate of about 3.3 percent and a budget surplus; its mean salary increased by more than 5 percent last year.
Culture, work, quality of life—all these things are drawing people to Nashville. Tourism is booming, with plans for 2,500 new hotel rooms to come online in the next several years. Meanwhile, the influx of new residents has helped fuel a vibe of optimism, risk-taking, creativity and confidence—especially because so many of those new residents seem to be young people, who just a few years ago would have gravitated to other, seemingly hipper cities. Nashville has its own distinct identity, but there are moments and places in the city when a visitor might feel like she’s in Brooklyn, New York, or Austin, Texas—say, in Google’s tech hub at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center or at Lyft’s new customer service headquarters or at literary novelist Ann Patchett’s independent bookstore, Parnassus Books.
Nashville is having a perfect-storm moment—in a good way. The question is why. How did a small city, until relatively recently identified with the Grand Ole Opry and not a whole lot else, suddenly become one of the most dynamic cities in the country?
I put this question to a number of people there, and the answer that came back again and again was “collaboration”—a spirit of openness and cooperation between the city’s different constituencies that facilitates essential planning, problem solving and business building. “Nashville is unique in that we all really work together well,” says Stuart McWhorter, a local businessman and investor who just finished a one-year stint heading the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. “We all help each other.” I heard that sentiment echoed in offices all over town. Adds Ralph Schulz, head of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, “I’ve lived in 11 cities, and one of the things I would tell you about this place is the collaboration and the engagement…is really personal here. The friendliness that exists here….”
“One of the unique things about Nashville is that we have a culture of people working together for common goals,” says Hayley Hovious, president of the Health Care Council. “This happens in other cities. But it happens really well here in Nashville.”
Statements like that can sound hokey and hard to credit, but there’s tangible evidence of that collaborative spirit. Most obvious, of course, are the musicians who play and write songs together; as most music fans know, there’s a long-standing and powerful tradition of Nashville musicians writing, recording and performing with each other. But collaboration is also built into the operation of local government. Nashville is part of the 504-square-mile Davidson County, all of which is governed by something called the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County. The result of a popular vote in 1962, “Metro” merged duplicative and competing city and county governments and created a 40-member metropolitan council that meets twice monthly. This blend of urban and suburban management reduces government waste; it fuses the interests of suburban and city residents. The result, says Mayor Barry, is that “the suburbs aren’t competing with the urban core.”
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