12 July 2014

For The Love of Nashville

I never meant to be absent from my blog for this long. It wasn't that I had writer's block. It was more that I was unable to focus on any one topic. As this summer has bloomed, though, some trends in the local news and conversations with various friends have been percolating.

In the time since my last post, I survived unemployment and started a job that I love in January, one that challenges me and stresses me out and pushes me beyond my comfort zone and tests my mettle and stretches my creativity: it's a position in business development for a small commercial construction company working with wonderful people who build wonderful things. It has absorbed a lot of my focus while I learn about the business, follow leads, and cultivate inspiration. It's everything I wanted in a job, and it makes me want to work really, really hard.

It's part of my job to know what's happening in the Nashville market, both with commercial real estate and with business in general. Nashville is actively touting its current "boom," it's growth as a hub of entrepreneurialism, healthcare, technology, and creativity. Community leaders have been enviably successful these past few years at fostering a business-friendly environment, drawing large corporate relocations, incubating hundreds of start-ups, fostering significant development in both commercial and residential real estate, driving job growth and home sales, and even improving academic performance in the public school system. All of this growth benefits the construction industry as we build the places where people will work, live, and play.

View of downtown Nashville, TN, from the balcony at 424 Church Street.
The SunTrust building in the foreground, the Pinnacle at Symphony Place building in the far left, the Music City Center with the green guitar-shaped roof, and the Omni Hotel immediately in the center were all built after my husband and I moved here in 2004.
Being so immersed in the hyperbole of the city's success, though, it becomes easy to forget about the core culture of the city and where Nashville is headed, if it can survive the growing pains without diluting the attributes that make it great. In just the past month, two issues arose that touched on the fate of Music City's legacy, the potential sale of RCA Studio A and a proposed retail restriction over 17 acres of Lower Broadway. Ben Folds, who leased Studio A for 90 days at a time and renewed his lease over 50 times, lobbied for the protection of the studio (which may never have been in real danger) and a general historic preservation overlay on Music Row. He garnered a lot of attention from artists, property owners, and developers. Some fall on the side of protecting the city's musical heritage by protecting the remaining studios in which that heritage was recorded. Others don't want to restrict any development and want to preserve the value of the properties as investments. Northeast of Music Row, the retail restrictions on Lower Broadway proposed by Metro Councilwoman Erica Gilmore would limit the types of business that can open there. The original bill banned national chains and required new businesses to be music venues or somehow otherwise reflect the country music theme of the honky-tonk district. Gilmore is working on a revision while opponents have proposed their own, less restrictive bill that redefines a "chain" and reduces the rule's physical footprint, decrying the push to narrowly define the face of downtown. Both problems reflect an old battle of capital versus culture.

The issues have been bubbling up in areas surrounding downtown in the past few months, also, as East Nashville bumps up against redevelopment district guidelines, and Germantown property prices inflated rapidly following the ground-breaking of a new baseball stadium for the Sounds this year, an event that drove a flurry of development deals. Metro Nashville issued a record value of building permits in the fiscal year ending June 30th, $1.87 billion. In Christine Kreyling's Nashville Post article linked above about East Nashville's redevelopment district, Metro Councilman John Summers stated the issue neatly: "Just because property values have risen dramatically doesn't mean everyone is going to do neighborhood-senstive development." It's an issue my husband and I know well from our experiences in Charleston, South Carolina. We've seen the rise in property values and property taxes that drive out poor populations, often driving minorities, especially, out of their neighborhoods to make way for new businesses and higher-income residents. We watched as rental rates on Meeting and King streets rose too high for the small, independent business owners to sustain their shops, shops that were later replaced with stores like Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma. Yankee vacationers and retirees began buying the mansions on the peninsula and the beautiful linguistic accent that rolled off the tongues of the Charleston elite all but disappeared. (Actually, I haven't heard it in years; it may be gone now.)

The music industry in Nashville has changed, as well, with the influx of new hopefuls following the success of the ABC show, "Nashville," a couple of short-lived reality TV shows, and the general trend in voter-driven singing competitions like "The Voice" and "Rising Star." My husband, a drummer, and his friends have been discussing the changes to their careers as a result. Hungry newbies on the scene dilute the value of creative work by playing for free, paying to play, or virtually giving away their catalogs. Executives want to know what show singers have been on, how many Facebook "likes" they've acquired, or how many YouTube hits a performer has attracted before considering them for a label. Record labels hire young--or young-looking--performers to back up their vocalists, to the detriment of the careers of seasoned professionals. Performers in the honky-tonks have to be human juke boxes to entertain the tourist crowds. The rapidly declining opportunities for paid gigs has caused more than one in our circle of friends to question the path this city is taking toward growth at the expense of the musicians who paint the scene.

Being pro-business and pro-progress, yet also pro-minority empowerment and pro-cultural preservation, I am torn on these issues. I don't believe that restricting Lower Broadway to only country music-related businesses is wise, but some restrictions could help retain the local flavor, whatever flavor local business owners choose to sell. I believe in preserving the heritage of Music Row, but I also believe the people who want to preserve those properties need to pay a fair-market value to protect them. I believe in the value of independent music labels and innovative start-ups in all fields, and I have grown to love the small-town feel of this somewhat large Tier 2 city. I abhor the big machine behind country music, but I recognize that profit motive always has and always will drive any industry.

So, what's to become of the culture here in the next five years? City leaders know that we have to get this growth thing right in terms of traffic, infrastructure, and housing, but it's up to the citizens to protect the pieces we love. In a way, it's another reason for locals to pursue their own businesses; it's the unique businesses here that do the most to preserve the culture. It's the locally-sourced and locally-owned restaurants, the small brewers and distillers, the indy labels and the label-less musicians, the artists, the techies, and the fashionistas that keep the profit-above-all system in check. They create jobs and opportunities while perpetuating that delicious blend of traditional and quirky. While I and others may worry at the dissolution of Nashville's peculiar flavor, it's possible that we are attracting and encouraging more of the ambitious people who will fit right in and help us become a more sustainable, more diverse, and ultimately more interesting community.

Is it likely? I don't know, but it is possible. It's possible we just need to fight business with business.


Anonymous said...

In regard to younger musicians and older musicians - that battle without the musicians has been going on my whole lifetime. Younger is always better, sure, and bigger is always better. Hopefully, Nashville's cooler heads will prevail. So happy that you really enjoy your job; it's about time. And hey, Nashville's enlarging their zoo! Not all bad.

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