Friday, February 11th, 2011

Replay: Is Nashville the Next Boomtown of the New South?

I traveled to Nashville for the first time in 2007, spending most of my time in the downtown area. I posted my impressions here, noting the high growth and high ambition level as well as the fantastic freeways, but also the generally unimpressive development and built environment.

I did another fly-by in April 2008. I made a conscious effort to try to get out and see different areas this time around. My tour guide was an Indy native who had spent the last decade or so in the northeast. He’d moved to the city about a year previously, so was seeing some of this for the first time himself. But it worked well, I thought.

I believe Nashville is an extremely important case study for metros in the Midwest to examine. Here is a city that was a sleepy state capital for many years while other southern towns such as Atlanta and Charlotte took off. Then it began heading on an upwards trajectory. It is not yet at such a high growth rate that it appears to be a completely different sort of place than the Midwest. Its population growth is only 1.9% per year, for example, not much higher than Midwest growth champion Indianapolis at 1.5%. But all the trend lines are accelerating. Corporate headquarters are flocking, in city development is booming, transplants from the north are arriving. It would not surprise me to see this city pop into a higher gear when the economy turns upwards again.

Nashville is a great case study because we can observe the inflection point in growth more or less as it happens. And also try to make sense of what is driving it. And to understand why Midwestern cities aren’t seeing it. I look at Nashville and ask myself: what does this place have on the Midwest? Compare it to Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, Kansas City, and Milwaukee and see if anything jumps out that would explain it. Some unique factor of Nashville. Consider:

  • Nashville is smaller than most of those places today, so it isn’t size
  • It can’t be just because Nashville is in the south or a no income tax right to work state. Memphis in the exact same state and is hurting. Birmingham and Montgomery haven’t done much in right to work Alabama.
  • Its college degree attainment of 31% is below many comparable Midwest cities, though it should be noted that Nashville is moving up the league tables fast. It was recently ranked the 4th biggest “brain magnet” in the United States.
  • It has no particular unique industry or assets. It can cite its Music City USA image, which certainly drives tourism and money. But Midwestern cities have other equivalent things they can counter with. Plus, it was Music City USA all the time it was a sleepy state capital as well.
  • Just being the state capital doesn’t explain it. Indy and Columbus are both in that role and are getting out paced by Nashville.
  • Having a consolidated city-county government is not unique. Indy and Louisville are both consolidated, and Columbus is quasi-consolidated because of the ability of that city to annex most of Franklin County and even parts of several adjacent counties.
  • There are mountains, but the geography does not appear to be particularly compelling.
  • There are not fabulous historic districts in every region. In fact, while there are some nicer neighborhoods, much of the city is built out exactly like most Midwestern burgs of equivalent size. A lot of it is outright dumpy.
  • Its cultural institutions are not as advanced as Midwestern ones. The Nashville Symphony isn’t going to take on the Cincinnati Symphony any time soon, that’s for sure.
  • It doesn’t have some fortress home grown companies that are driving it.
  • It has Vanderbilt University, but most Midwestern cities have a good school in them too.

I compare Nashville to the top performing Midwest metros and just scratch my head. Nashville’s arguably got nothing on the Midwest and in many ways is playing from an inferior position. So what is going on?

I’ll take a shot at explaining a few things I’ve noticed. I’m not saying these are necessarily the answers. But they are things to consider. If I were head of strategy for a Midwestern metro, I’d be conducting an extensive peer city comparison of Nashville to try to figure it out in more detail. But here are some thoughts:

  • First, as I previously noted, is the extremely high ambition level. These guys are clearly looking at places like Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte, etc. and saying “Why not us?” Their mission is to become one of America’s great cities. There’s no “era of limits” in Nashville. You see this come through, for example, in their convention center plans, which call for 1.2 million square feet. It comes through in their highways, which are being built 8-10 lanes with HOV lanes, as if getting ready to become the much bigger city they plan to be. It shows in the numerous residential high rise and midrise projects. It shows in how Nashville, unlike every comparable Midwest metro, already has a commuter rail line in service. Midwesterners recoil from change, and would view becoming the next Charlotte or Atlanta with horror. But Nashville is eager to move up to the premier league, so to speak.
  • Second is the unabashedly pro-growth and pro-business stance. Every development in the Midwest is opposed by some group of NIMBY’s. Densification, even in downtown areas, is often anathema to influential neighbors. Not in Nashville. Huge tracts of inner city are being rebuilt from vacant lots or single family homes into multi-story town houses or condos. There are midrises all over the place. It does not appear that development has any problem getting approved there.
  • Third is low taxes and costs. Tennessee does not have a state income tax. Electricity from the TVA is dirt cheap. Property taxes cannot be increased without a public vote. It remains to be seen if this environment can be sustained, but for right now, cost appears to be an advantage.
  • Fourth is that they’ve embraced instead of rejecting their heritage. Rather than saying that country music is for hillbillies and an embarrassment to their new ambitions as a big league city, they’ve proudly embraced it. They updated the image with a glitzy, “Nashvegas” spin and made it the core of what Nashville is all about. Most Midwestern elites seem to view their existing heritage negatively. But great cities have to spring from the native soil in which they are born. Their character has to be organic. Import all the fancy stores, restaurants, sports teams, transit lines, etc. you want, but it won’t distinguish your city. Nashville learned this lesson well, probably from Atlanta. The southern boomtowns took their existing Southern heritage, dropped the negative items that needed to be changed, updated the core positive elements, and created the vision of the “New South”. This is something that can be embraced by the masses, unlike the elitist transformations that are often promulgated.
  • Fifth is that, again, they appear to have studied the lessons of places like Dallas, Atlanta, Charlotte, etc. They’ve seen the need for freeways. They’ve looked at the style of development and the neo-traditional urban form. I was very impressed to see that there while most condo developments and such were fairly undistinctive, I did not note any that exhibited poor urban design form. When I consider the poorly designed projects that are frequently implemented in, say, downtown Indianapolis, it is easy to see who gets out more. Nashville has done its homework.
  • Sixth, Nashville is realistic and open to self-criticism without being self-flagellating. I posted my previous take on the city on a discussion forum dedicated to that city. Given the modestly negative tone contained in much of it, I expected to get crucified. Surprisingly, most of them basically agreed with it. Too many cities in the Midwest either engage in naive boosterism or wallow in woe-is-us. Perhaps because of the large number of newcomers, there’s a more realistic assessment of where Nashville stands. And this enables rational decisions about where it needs to go.

If anyone else has observations to share, I would love to hear them.

Here are some photographs I took while there. First, a view of the Tennessee capitol building across a green space I believe is called the Bicentennial Mall.

A street scape in Hillsboro Village, a small commercial district near Vanderbilt University.

The Pancake Pantry in Hillsboro Village, a breakfast place of high local repute. I was initially skeptical but the food was actually pretty darn good. This place is huge and there was still a line out the door at 10am on a Friday morning. Pretty crazy.

The storefronts are a nice urban touch, but if you look behind this building you see a gigantic parking lot. This is perhaps an example of faux-urbanism. Putting the parking lot in the back doesn’t make it any less a strip mall. It is a difference in form, not function.

One of the many vacant lots with a “condos coming soon” sign.

The main road heading west of out downtown, West End Avenue, is developed at very high densities. I haven’t seen much in the way of this in most Midwestern cities. Midrises line both sides of the road basically from downtown to the interstate loop. It’s a six lane mega-street that moves tons of cars, but appears to have great bus service as well.

Here is another one under construction.

A proposed, but I believe not yet funded, high rise development. Indianapolis readers will no doubt recognize one of the towers as a clone of the proposed Intercontinental hotel for Pan Am Plaza that lost out as the convention center anchor hotel.

If you continue out to the west from here, you run into neighborhoods like Green Hills, which is where the most premier shopping in the area is found, and the suburb of Belle Meade, which serves as Nashville’s mansion district. Unlike traditional Midwestern mansion districts, this one is more rural in nature, with large estates that wouldn’t be out of place in a plantation. I did not take pictures of these areas, however.

Back closer to downtown is a nearby area known as the “Gulch”. It is not too far from Nashville’s Union Station.

This appears to be some seedy industrial district that is being transformed all at once by a series of large developments. It also has several clubs and restaurants. I ate at a seafood place called Watermark that was surprisingly good. I believe most of the places are upscale chains, though I’m not sure if Watermark is or not. Here’s a picture of some of the development.

More development

North of downtown is a small historic district called Germantown. This was rather unimpressive if you ask me. I didn’t see much that was German about it. It sure isn’t Columbus’ German Village, that’s for sure. There were some restaurants there. I had lunch at one of them which, fortunately for them, I can’t remember the name of because it was terrible. This area is mostly older single family homes.

The amazing thing about this area is that almost every vacant or industrial parcel was being redeveloped as condos. This really brought home to me the difference between Nashville and the Midwest. Were this, say, the Cottage Home area in Indianapolis, the local neighborhood association would use their historic district status to keep developments like these out. In Nashville, they are seen as a positive. Here are some examples.

More condos

More condos with retail space. Sorry for the very blurry pic but it was raining as you can see.

More condos being built, and still more proposed.

You get the picture. Also, note from all these photos the lack of design disasters. These are all workmanlike structures. The challenge for Nashville is that while there is a ton of new development, all of it is in a relatively generic, undistinguished style that could be in the downtown of almost any city. I did not get a strong sense of any type of vernacular style emerging. That is something I’d be looking for if I were them.

Lastly, here’s one suburban example that shows something I pointed out last time. Namely that even in brand new, upscale subdivisions they aren’t putting in sidewalks on both sides of the street. I find this very odd. While I noticed some bike lanes this time around, Nashville’s definitely got a long ways to go when it comes to pedestrian and bicycle friendliness.

Nashville is definitely a city that is on an upward trajectory. The volume of urban development and the business attraction success are impressive. It is exceeding even the best performing Midwest metros in that regard. However, it still lags the top southern and western metros. The current rate is very healthy, but probably isn’t sufficient to realize the civic ambitions. It remains to be seen whether Nashville can put it in another gear and take its place among the boomtowns, or whether it will merely stay on its current growth path. Either path is possible or a valid civic choice. While always possible, the likelihood that Nashville is going to take a major downtown does not appear high in the short term.

This is an updated version of a post originally appeared on June 22, 2008.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Civic Branding, Economic Development, Historic Preservation, Public Policy, Urban Culture
Cities: Nashville

59 Responses to “Replay: Is Nashville the Next Boomtown of the New South?”

  1. groovimus says:

    Greg says : “No need to stoop to name calling and store bought assumptioms.”

    Don’t recall any “name calling” unless the word “progressive” in quotes is considered such. What exactly does it mean, “name calling”

    My suggestion was a good one — A person coming to a city scopes out something with the eyeballs, considers that as good as a study, and then finds that city disturbing in some way, after a few hours at most. Then comes on this board to complain about the place. “Get a life” is the only comeback that seems to fit.

    Nashville seems to have boomed just fine without fitting Greg’s preconcieved notions of what a boomtown should look like. Go to the boomtown of San Antonio (the second largest city in TX now) and come back to this board and tell us the city will not prosper because of its lack of enough individuals of a particular minority and tell us it is “disturbing”.

    And Greg’s knowledge of Nashville’s history is noticeable in its dearth. Black population in the metro is a small percentage compared to other metros, (but not San Antonio) and as a result, upwardly mobile blacks do not consider it to be “on their list”. But — btw guess what library back in the early fifties treated MLK Jr. fairly? Nashville public library, when Dr. King was prohibited from using the main library in Atlanta.

  2. Thad says:

    Greg never said anything about the city failing because of it and just stated an observation he had made. You then went and made a big deal about by assuming he was a progressive and calling him race obsessed when he only made one comment. Also according to the 2005-2009 American Community Survey data on the Nashville-Davidson area, blacks make up 28% of the population, which is not a small percentage and an increase from the 2000 data that showed 26.8%. It probably hasn’t changed much for 2010 either. When a group of people makeup over 1/4 of your population, especially in the immediate vicinity, there should be a good chance that you would see a black person in some professional setting somewhere in the relatively small downtown.

    And if you have such a problem with the observation being supposedly weighted like a study, why don’t you point us at real studies or post some reliable data to prove your point instead of make veiled insults trying to discredit someone you don’t even know by saying that they have some race-complex which no one but you commented on.

    Links to the ACS data I mentioned:

  3. alki says:


    Reading over this article about Nashville……your analysis of Nashville vs Midwest metros….I think you may be a bit too judgmental. At best, I think Nashville may have two things over Midwest metros.

    First, its becoming a major entertainment center. A number of country western stars have been actively trying to crossover into rock for most of this decade which would expand Nashville’s reach in the music industry. With that kind of development, the number of people attracted to Nashville grew exponentially. Never underestimate the drawing power of an entertainment center whether it be LA, Vegas, NYC or Nashville.

    Secondly, Nashville has a mild winter climate. The Midwest winter is encouraged me and many others to leave the Midwest. I don’t think its any where near a positive as its role as an entertainment center but it does play a part.

    The recent Chrysler/Detroit Superbowl commercial prompted me to do some investigating of Midwest metro areas. I was very surprised at some of the growth rates I saw…..Indianapolis, Des Moines, Omaha, Madison, Columbus, and Mpls/St Paul. While not booming, all 6 metros are growing nicely and their skylines reflect that growth. If most Midwest metros were growing as fast, I think the region would be in turnaround. BTW I have lived in a boomtown….there is very little good derived from boomtown conditions.

    But what really struck home in this article is your comments regarding the rebranding of the South with the moniker, New South. Two simple words and yet they speak volumes. In a flash they wipe out the image of the KKK, smelly swamps, toothless smiles and moonshine stills. Meanwhile, the primary driver of the Midwest’s image is the Rust Belt….hardly a positive branding. That has to be changed. It is hurting the Midwest terribly and tarnishes all Midwest metros with the same brush. In fact, I don’t think the Midwest can turn until there is a name change…..the New Midwest or the Marvelous Midwest. Rustbelt has to go…….people don’t even bother to look after hearing the name.

  4. John Morris says:

    The term “New South” might have started as B.S. and branding but ultimately came to reflect real changes in racist attitudes, and vast changes in aproaches to business and investment.

    A large number of Southerners openly admit, previous actions were counterproductive and wrong.

    This process of self examination has not happened in most of the midwest which is very much in the arogant, self pity stage the south was in during the early 20th century.

    Deep changes have to be made, in openess towards businesses, taxes and work laws; not just a rebranding campaign.

  5. John Morris says:

    I see lots of parallels between the old South and much of the current “Rust Belt”.

    A big problem for many years in the South came from the desire to recreate an idealised past and reject any change that might upset old power structures.Notice how Atlanta and Nashville don’t seem hung up on one path to development, Music, healthcare, office jobs, distribution, manufacturing, retirees all seem to be viewed as potential areas of growth.

    Meanwhile, in the Midwest almost any job base not tied to a towns history is questioned.There does seem to be an inverse relationship between the number of historians in a place and it’s economic growth. In both the old South and current Midwest, navel gazing and myth making are major industries.

  6. JoeP says:

    groovy, you are the one speaking “hooey”

    What the hell do you think a tax abatement is? Southern states (inluding the one I live in) have in fact given away their souls (on the backs of us taxpayers) for foreign automakers. Seriously, be at least a little informed on the matter.

  7. Kim Fennell says:


    What about the 3rd Largest City Park and growing, Nashville’s Warner Parks? 15 minutes from downtown in West Nashville, there are 22 miles of trails…2500+ acres and buying 500 more. Gorgeous and very “untouched” – you feel like you are miles away from civilization. Another city wildlife area has a 3-mile perimeter lake – one of Nashville’s best kept secrets. The two lakes are accessible & the landscape is a rolling, dynamic beauty. Very pretty, culturally diverse, intellectual & interesting: that is how I see Nashville now.

    Many of my clients are from LA & NY- traveling back and forth for the entertainment business. It makes things even more fun around here.

  8. JesryPo says:

    Nashville believes itself to be smarter and more cultured than most southern cities – or if not YET smarter and more cultured, then determined to make it so. I spent a fair amount of time there a while back and was taken aback by the attitude I found, this idea that it was only a matter of time before the city took its place among the great American places to live and work.

    I’ll admit I had to be convinced; the physical environment, particularly downtown, was rather desolate and depressing at first blush. Block after block of surface parking isolating some generic late-century skyscrapers and a few brutal cultural institutions. But next time you’re in town, please please please take the time to visit the Nashville Public Library on Church Street. Few civic investments express the aspirations of a place like this one, with its grand public spaces and robust programs – all in the service of learning. On the third floor of the grand staircase are a series of murals of the city through its history. These aerials show a (now lost) dense city of row houses and churches – fabric more like Baltimore or northwest DC than Atlanta or Charlotte.

    Combined with this dormant urban DNA is this idea of being an Athens, a place of learning and culture in a region of savages. Nashville doesn’t look at itself and see sprawl or empty lots or decrepit strip malls; what they see is Vanderbilt and Fisk and that city of townhouses climbing up hills to the Capitol building. Heck, they built themselves a concrete Parthenon!

    It’s a funny myopia, but it works. In the last decade they’ve invested in the aforementioned Symphony Hall, the Frist (art museum), the stadium and not just the main library downtown but major improvements to branches around the city. All of these were partially paid for and/or spearheaded by VERY involved and civic minded wealthy patrons – a particularly southern phenomenon that may be a clue to what differentiates Nashville from its midwestern peers. These people take their hometown SERIOUSLY and invest time and effort into its promotion and improvement (you have never had your arm twisted until you’ve been politely ambushed in a Belle Meade sitting room).

    Finally, these investments, for the most part, were done right. Nashville was so afraid of becoming the monster that is Atlanta (ooh, they HATE Atlanta) that they decided to make these projects into thoughtful insertions into their downtown. Each (with the exception of the stadium) are decidedly urban buildings. Each defines a micro area of downtown, allowing the city room to regrow its fabric to eventually connect them. And Nashville’s citizens are fiercely proud of each of them, because they represent who they thought they were all along…

  9. Jeff says:

    Urbanophile —

    Thanks for your site — really enjoy it. But you missed the main point about the economics of Nashville: yes, it’s embraced the concept of “Music City” for which it has been known for decades, and it’s the third largest recording center in the US, so there’s a lot of money generated from that industry (including tourist dollars). But music isn’t the biggest economic generator: Nashville is THE health care industry capitol of the US and that unique industry asset sets it apart from the other cities you mentioned. Go to this site for the Nashville Health Care Council (a chamber of commerce-type organization for health care companies and their ancillary businesses) for more info:
    Some stats just to make the point: Health care is Nashville’s largest and fastest growing employer, with an overall economic benefit of more than $30 billion and 200,000 jobs annually. The region is home to more than 250 health care companies that represent diverse segments of the industry. Among these are 56 companies headquartered here that generate approximately 400,000 jobs and $62 billion annually in revenue worldwide. Seventeen publicly-traded health care companies are located in Nashville with combined employment of more than 145,000 and revenue of nearly $26 billion annually globally.
    Healthcare is one industry that hasn’t shrunk during the Recession, making Nashville’s economic base all the stronger.

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