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.
The question is, how many people are moving to Nashville every day? On a recent visit to the Tennessee capital, I heard multiple answers to that question, which I hadn’t even asked. One hundred people are moving to Nashville daily, mayor Megan Barry volunteered. No—the real number is 82, an Uber driver told me later. Actually, it’s 90, said a staff person at the chamber of commerce.
So let’s say between 80 and 100—the exact number is probably impossible to know and doesn’t really matter. The larger point is this: Nashville is growing fast. One hundred people a day may not sound like a lot if you live in New York or Los Angeles, but growth of about 36,000 people a year is a big deal in a city with a population of about 680,000, depending on when you read this. Nashville officials expect the city’s population to hit about 2 million—almost triple its current size—by 2040.
There’s also a second point, which is that the current residents of Nashville are urgently self-aware that their city is hot, hot, hot. Everybody in Nashville, it seems, is talking about what’s happening in Nashville.
In fairness, there’s a lot to talk about. Long known primarily as a locus of country music, Nashville has in the past 10 or 15 years become not just one of the most culturally vibrant cities in the country, but also one of the most economically robust. Let’s start with culture: Nashville probably has the country’s most creative and collaborative music scene, with thousands of songwriters and musicians playing a range of musical styles—the idea that Nashville is only about country music has always been a misperception—supported by an infrastructure that includes music publishing, countless clubs and honky-tonks, a booming tourist scene and a pervasive local recognition that Nashville’s music is both a national treasure and a huge economic boon. The city is home to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, making Nashville—unlike Cooperstown (baseball), Cleveland (rock ’n’ roll) and Canton (football)—one of the few hall of fame locations where the thing being honored actually thrives in the city that’s honoring it.
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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