What can Virginia learn from Nashville (Part 1)?

Photo credit: Rachael Ray Every Day – Awesome Things to Do in Nashville

Juggernaut. The Guardian published a story today on the amazing rise of Nashville as a business center, an entertainment center, a tourist destination and a city. Music City is certainly going through a multi-decade growth spurt rising from a population of 170,874 in 1960 to an estimated population of 691,243 in 2017. Interestingly, Richmond had 28% more people than Nashville in 1960 but is only one third the size of Nashville today. In a similar vein, Nashville was 88% more populous than Alexandria in 1960 but is 4.3X bigger than Alexandria today. However, as we’ll see, this is not quite “apples to apples.” The relative growth of Nashville was far more the result of ambitious, aggressive and sometimes hard decisions by the state of Tennessee and the City of Nashville than any failings on the part of Richmond or Alexandria. Yet this amazing growth spurt comes at the cost of considerable growing pains. The question for Virginia is whether the Nashville model (or the Austin, Charlotte, Louisville or Atlanta models for that matter) hold any lessons for the Old Dominion. This topic will be presented in two parts – this post (background and history) and a future post (more recent history, current successes and challenges). I will publish the second post when I return from a long weekend in Nashville at the end of April.

Multi-pronged. People outside of Nashville often think of Tennessee’s capital as a one trick pony with that trick being country music. While the Grand Ole Opry definitely draws crowds and country music performers all seem to inevitably end up in Nashville, the economic story of Nashville is far more dynamic than banjos and songs about small towns. As stated, Nashville is the capital of Tennessee and Tennessee has been growing steadily with a compound annual growth rate of almost 1% per year since 2000. (Virginia’s population growth rate over the same period was slightly higher). More people in Tennessee means higher state budgets and more jobs in the capital. Nashville is also a health care hub. As the Guardian article points out, its sprawling healthcare sector employs more than a quarter of a million locals, a significant number in a city of 700,000 people.”  And if you have a bible in your house it was probably printed in Nashville. Again from the Guardian article, “It is also the Bible-printing hub of the US. LifeWay Christian Resources, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing arm, has over 1,100 employees in Nashville, and has been a part of the city since 1891. HarperCollins’ Christian publishing division is also in the city, selling over 60 million Bibles in the past five years.” Finally, Nashville is the home of Vanderbilt University, which is generally considered academically superior to even the fine universities in Virginia. All this translates into tourism with approximately 14 million people visiting the city each year and an influx of talent which landed Nashville a major Amazon operation (along with the same bickering among the locals as in New York and Arlington).

Putting it all together. Modern Nashville is no accident. It is the culmination of almost 60 years of planning and intelligent risk taking by public entities and private enterprises alike. One could argue that modern Nashville was born in 1963. That was the year Nashvillians consolidated the governments of the City of Nashville and Davidson County becoming America’s first city-county (barely). The consolidation took root in 1956 with a report called a “Plan of Metro” published by both the city’s and county’s planning commissions. The report included a stern warning: “If the ‘metropolitan problem’ was not solved, the area could ‘expect to be divided haplessly into a patchwork quilt of many small and ineffective governments and half governments.” The city and county leaders wanted to consolidate, and the Tennessee General Assembly passed the enabling legislation. However, the citizens were not convinced. A ballot initiative was rejected in 1958. Four years of conversation ensued and in June, 1962 the merger was approved by the people. The stage was set. Today, the popular view is, “The change from multiple governments to one single organization, led by one administration, has yielded valuable benefits, including financial and service delivery efficiencies, lower taxes and fewer bureaucratic hurdles, as well as unifying residents as citizens of a single community.”

But Virginia has city-county combinations too. At roughly the same time that Nashville and Davidson County were merging several localities in Hampton Roads were going through seemingly the same process. For example, the “city” of Virginia Beach merged with Princess Anne County creating an independent city called Virginia Beach. However, this was really the merger of a small beach town with a rural county. In the 1960 census the “city” of Virginia Beach had 8,091 residents while the county of Princess Anne had 77,127.  That combination affected 2.1% of Virginia’s 1960 population. Contrast that to the Nashville / Davidson County combination. The combined populations of those entities was 399,743 in 196o representing 11.2% of Tennessee’s 1960 population. In what will be a continuing theme in the comparison between Tennessee and Virginia vis-a-vis Nashville, Tennessee takes not only more risks but bigger risks. A Virginia combination more comparable to Nashville/Davidson in the early 1960s would have been The City of Richmond and Henrico County. That would have involved 337,357 Virginians or 8.5% of Virginia’s population. Alternately, a merger of Fairfax and Arlington Counties into a city would have affected 11.0% of Virginia’s population. Had that happened, the resulting City of Arfax (?) would today be America’s 9th largest city, ahead of Dallas and behind San Diego.

Next up: How Nashville made the city-county work (mostly).

— Don Rippert.

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28 responses to “What can Virginia learn from Nashville (Part 1)?

  1. It’s a fascinating subject to me. Greater Houston is made up of 9 counties. How does governance work?

    What would a “greater” Northern Virginia or Richmond look like?

    Oh wait, I bet I’m playing the straight man for DJ here……….

    • I’m actually more intrigued by a Richmond / Henrico / Chesterfield merger of some sort (maybe not the entirety of Henrico and Chesterfield).

      NoVa will always be a suburb of DC. I guess you could try to pull off a St Paul / Minneapolis type arrangement but at least those two are in the same state. At the end of the day most people who live in NoVa will reply “DC” when asked where they live by a stranger in a different state. I think DC “annexing” Arlington, Alexandria and inside the beltway Fairfax as well as the nearby Maryland suburbs would be a better idea. Virginia would lose a significant part of their tax base but they’d probably be a red state again.

  2. A key factor in the Nashville-Davidson County consolidation is voter approval by all the jurisdictions. I suspect that more people in the northern part of Fairfax County would prefer to break off from the County. I know a referendum in McLean would result in a majority proposing to be a separate city to avoid the large class sizes in schools despite high real estate taxes and to gain control over zoning and transportation.

    • I don’t know all the details of the Nashville – Davidson County consolidation but I think it was the voters in those two jurisdictions, not sub-jurisdictions. In any event, McLean is not a jurisdiction in any legal sense so you’d get to vote but even if every McLean resident voted “no” to a consolidation it wouldn’t matter if Fairfax County voted “yes”. Legally, the City of Fairfax could probably stay independent but not McLean.

      As for McLean becoming a city – oh please. Maybe a town. If you added some of the areas around McLean you’d have enough people and land to create something approaching a real city. Otherwise, you’re just pulling a Falls Church. Trying to isolate a “whiter than average” enclave and hoping your high housing costs will keep it that way. Then, in keeping with City of Falls Church tradition, you can run around telling everybody how liberal, open minded and progressive all the people in the white enclave really are. Lol.

      I don’t begrudge people in McLean from wanting independence from Fairfax County and hoping a city charter will get the General Assembly somewhat off their backs. However, you’re going to have to draw the lines broadly enough to avoid the cries of apartheid.

      • According to the Census Bureau, McLean is 71.3% white, 18.3 % Asian, 2% black & 5.1% Hispanic.

        I can foresee no set of circumstances where McLean could become independent of Fairfax County but I maintain a referendum would support separation.

  3. I’ve never completely understood what the distinction is with regard to Virginia’s independent cities versus… combined counties in places like Nashville, Houston, etc…

    That would be an informative blog post.

    Virginia counties do form regional authorities. We have them all over the place down our way – regional water/sewer, regional libraries and jails.., criminal justice academy, and MPO for transportation but our schools are not regional nor consolidation – each jurisdiction has it’s own.

    One of the largest consolidation school systems in the country is Wake County in Raleigh North Carolina and we also have one in Va in Williamsburg/James City .

    • You have to believe that cities are where opportunity and economic development will differentially happen. Once you believe that you want more and bigger cities. Then you have to believe that making cities attractive places requires room to grow and a comprehensive plan. To implement that you can’t have a patchwork of governments. Otherwise each of the patchwork governments creates a “mini city” that never gets big or dense enough to become a real city. Tysons is the classic example. Wouldn’t it have been better for Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax County (inside the beltway) to all be one city with one government? You hopefully wouldn’t have Tysons, Old Town, Crystal City and Rosslyn all competing as “mini-cities”. You’d have one real city with all the mixed use, walkability, urban-ness that attracts the young people who are the cannon fodder of the new economy.

      Did we really need a Short Pump Town Center as a “mini-city” alternative to downtown Richmond?

      • Don, you are right. Of course, it would have taken a lot of foresight many years ago to have made this happen. Under Virginia law, it could still happen–Alexandria and Arlington could consolidate with a portion of Fairfax County. But the politics of pulling that off would be monumental. Whoever could do it should next tackle bringing peace to the Middle East.

      • Most people I know want more control over their community not less. That supports more fragmentation not less. It’s anti-Dillon Rule to its logical extension.

        A number of years ago, the real estate development community made a push to reconstitute the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors with fewer districts and more at-large members. The rationale was that the local supervisors were too parochial in protecting the interests of their constituents. It would be easier to get big projects approved over local opposition with more at-large members. The bigger the size of the government, the less responsive it often is to residents.

        Again, having said all this, there is no way Fairfax County will be broken into smaller jurisdictions. Similarly, there is no way Fairfax County will be combined with any other jurisdiction.

    • Fairfax County and Fairfax City have a joint agreement under which Fairfax County administers and operates Fairfax City schools, although the city still has a school board and a school superintendent.

  4. Dancin’ in the Street
    Song by The Mamas and the Papas
    Callin’ out around the world
    Are you ready for a brand new beat?
    Summer’s here and the time is right
    For dancin’ in the streets
    They’re dancin’ in Chicago
    Down in New Orleans
    Up in New York City
    All we need is music (sweet music)
    Sweet music (sweet music)
    There’ll be music everywhere (everywhere)
    There’ll be swingin’ and swayin’ and records playin’
    And dancin’ in the streets
    Oh, it doesn’t matter what you wear
    Just as long as you are there
    So come on, every guy (come on) grab a girl
    Everywhere around the world
    There’ll be dancing
    They’re dancing in the street
    This is an invitation
    Across the nation
    A chance for the folks to meet
    There’ll be laughin’, singin’, and music swingin’
    And dancin’ in the streets
    Philadelphia, P.A. (Philadelphia, P.A.)
    Baltimore and DC now (Baltimore and DC now)
    Yeah, don’t forget the Motor City
    (Can’t forget the Motor City)
    All we need is music (sweet music)
    Sweet music (sweet music)
    There’ll be music everywhere (everywhere)
    There’ll be swingin’ and swayin’ and records playin’
    And dancin’ in the street, yeah
    Oh, it doesn’t matter what you wear
    Just as long as you are there
    So come on, every guy (come on, come on) grasp a girl
    Everywhere around the world
    There’ll be dancin’
    Be dancin’ in the streets
    Philadelphia, P.A. (Philadelphia, P.A.)
    Baltimore and DC now (Baltimore and DC now)
    Can’t forget that Motor City
    (Can’t forget the Motor City)
    Way down in L.A., California
    (Way down in L.A., California)
    Not to mention Halifax, Nova Scotia (Not to mention, indeed)
    And [?] they do that [?] you know (Yes, I know)
    Manchester? (And, oh, Amherst, Amherst)
    Alexandria? (Virginia, Virginia)
    Falls Church (Where’s that?) <—————

    Ooh, Boyle Heights! (Boyle Heights, never heard of it)


  5. Tidewater VA (excuse me, Hampton Roads) didn’t do it correctly what with 7+ police and fire departments, city councils, city managers, mayors, and school boards, etc.

    You even have tolls between Portsmouth and Norfolk.

  6. Oh, this is a fascinating topic. Virginia is the only state that has city/county separation. That means, most importantly, distinct taxing jurisdictions. The roots go back to rural/urban. The counties were rural and needed fewer services. Urban areas needed more services, i.e. police, fire protection, streets, etc. and the rural folks did not want to pay for them. Now, of course, many counties are just as urban as cities and provide the same types of services.

    Many years ago, I did considerable research on metropolitan governments. Nashville-Davidson County was one of the first. Indianapolis and Marion County also formed a regional government. Interestingly, another area often listed by political scientists studying metropolitan governments is Toronto. It has been a long time since I have encountered this topic. I will be interested in your observations, Don.

  7. I’m still not clear on the actual governance and functional differences between Virginia’s independent cities and adjacent counties and other states cities that are embedded in and part of the counties.

    For instance, Houston Texas – greater Houston is comprised of 7 different counties with Harris being the biggest with more than 4 1/2 million people.

    Houston (Harris County) is 4 times bigger than Fairfax county and has 4 times the population. Houston has 2,732 people per sq mi. Fairfax has 2,937 per sq m.

    According to DJ, neither are “true” cities because they sprawl too much and do not have enough density. NYC has 26,403 people per square mile. Chicago has 11,868.0. Los Angeles (which “spraws”) has 7,544.6 ppsm (people per square mile).

    Houston is unique – it has very in terms of zoning which some characterize as minimal zoning.

    All of the above relates back to the original subject which is the relative merits of city/county consolidations to achieve better functional efficiencies ( like schools, police, water/sewer) and more uniform rules and regulations – like zoning and development.

    But consolidation does not necessarily lead to more density which is also where efficiencies in services would seem to be possible.

    But I simply do not know, for instance, if the 7 counties that make up Greater Houston – have combined/consolidated/uniform services (which supposedly is a shortcoming of Virginia’s independent cities adjacent to or surrounded by counties.

    But this has to be one of the very few blogs or even perhaps unique in Virginia with regard to discussions of this kind ( which I find much more compelling that discussions of “leftists”, race, and such.

    • Larry, the basic difference lies in taxation. In Virginia, if you live in the county, you pay county real estate taxes. If you live in the city, you pay city real estate taxes. (In Virginia, towns are part of counties. Town residents pay real estate taxes to both the town and the county.) As for services, each county and city has the authority to run its own services, but there are multiple areas in which service delivery can be consolidated, if the jurisdictions agree.

      In other states, you can pay taxes to multiple jurisdictions, both county and city. Also, there can be multiple service districts, such as school districts, that have their own taxing authority. Each state has its own approach. In some large metropolitan areas, there can be a dizzying number of governmental jurisdictions, each with its own service responsibilities. The “Virginia Way” may be an impediment at times to efficiency and coordination/cooperation, but, at least, it is relatively simple.

      • And you can also tell who exactly is responsible for the spending or the taxing decisions. The board of supervisors or city council decides what to appropriate and the tax rates. Details of spending are in the municipal budget or the school board’s budget.

        Years ago, I had to prepare a sales tax matrix for the state of Illinois, its subdivisions and overlay districts. It was so complex that the business had second thoughts about jumping into the market, at least for a while.

        The split in Virginia does have some benefits for accountability.

  8. What’s the personal income tax rate in Tennessee? Oh, yeah – zero. 🙂 Don’t do this and ignore the tax policy advantages that TN has created for itself, and the role that has played in the success of a place like Nashville.

    My Dad fought this battle twice over proposed consolidation in the Roanoke Valley, years after the wave of change in Hampton Roads. Pure and simple racism killed it. The county and Salem didn’t want a consolidated school system.

    • Steve, you put your finger on one of the factors affecting consolidation in Virginia–racism. In lower Hampton Roads, there was consolidation of counties and cities into larger cities to prevent annexation by Norfolk and Portsmouth. In other areas, such as Richmond and Roanoke, annexation or consolidation, racism was one of the underlying factors in the opposition.

      • Right. I understand the difference between living in a county with less services and living in a locale with more services and the willingness of people to pay more for the services they get.

        So in counties that have embedded cities that are not independent – do the counties collect taxes from everyone the same but allocate more to the towns and cities or do they have supplemental taxes for places that have higher levels of services?

        • In Virginia, there is no such thing as an “embedded city that is not independent”. By definition, a city is independent and separate from the county. However, cities are free to enter into agreements with counties regarding delivery of services. Those agreements will hsve the cities paying for delivery of services to city residents.

        • In Virginia, there is no such thing as an “embedded city that is not independent”. By definition, a city is independent from the county. However, a city may into an agreement with its neighboring county regarding the delivery of services. For example, some small cities have entered agreements for joint school systems. These agrrements will have provisions for the city to pay the county for delivering the service to city residents.

          • right… but I’m talking about how cities and towns in other states work where the city/town IS “embedded” in the county.

            Is there separate governance for the embedded city/town?

            are there separate regulations ?

            Are taxes only collected at the county level and not the city/town level?

            I’m basically trying to understand the DIFFERENCES between how independent cities in Virginia DIFFER from how non-independent cities inside of counties “work” in other states.

            Is it a distinction without a real difference or are there substantiative differences?

            Take Nashville which is inside of Davidson County. Do the elected for Davidson County govern Nashville or does Nashville have a separately elected governance? Does it also tax in addition to Davidson County?

    • Interesting Steve. To this point, I don’t think I’ve see that issue talked about in BR.

      • Larry, to answer your questions in the post above. Here is the description on the Nashville Metro website: “Metropolitan government is a consolidation of two governments rather than the county taking over the city or the city taking over the county government. It is, in reality, a third form of local government with a range of options and flexibility to provide for population shifts to the suburbs.” So, the answer is that everyone lives in the Nashville Metro Area and is governed by a single elected council.

        Here is an interesting tidbit from the short history on that site. Consolidation was proposed in 1958, but the voters rejected it. “Since metropolitan government had failed, the city of Nashville implemented alternative plans to improve its tax base. It annexed 42-square miles of suburban residential property and created a $10 wheel tax on all cars regularly using the city streets, which included suburban residents who worked in the city. These measures outraged the 82,000 residents of the annexed areas as well as other county residents who feared that their neighborhood could be annexed as well. They called for another referendum on consolidation and a second charter commission was created to write a new charter for metropolitan government.”

        I figured you would approve of the “wheel tax”, although I don’t think congestion mitigation was the motivating factor.

  9. Don the Ripper,
    Great story! I don’t know much about Nashville but when I was with BusinessWeek in the late 1990s, they gave me a dream assignment — the business of making bourbon which took me through Kentucky and Tennessee.
    I did not stay overnight in Nashville but I was thoroughly impressed with it. I had a business lunch there, drove around a little and listened to the radio stations which were not all country but in one case, truly sophisticated jazz. I have a cousin in Chattanooga whose step son is a doctor in Nashville and he always says that it’s a great town whose advantages are relatively not known by the rest of the country.
    I have no idea how it got that way, but I am very pessimistic about anything like it happening like it in the Richmond MSMA. As in many other counties and cities, superhighways offered white residents escape routes from the inner city. In Richmond’s case, the roads offer residences and jobs that don’t even involve Richmond (288 and Interstate 64) Although richer African-Americans have been moving to the suburbs and young white people are moving into the city, there’s not enough of a mood change to change in institutional racism that besmudges the region. The region can’t agree on anything — regional transit, how to build a new baseball stadium, development proposals that push big projects farther and farther from Richmond.
    It could have happened as it did in Nashville, which has many of the same Southern peculiarities as Richmond but somehow they just stick here. They also go into business even one of Virginia’s vanities is that it is a pro-business state. A few months ago, Style Weekly did a curious history of how Richmond was once the “Wall Street of the South.” What the article somehow did not note was that much of it packed up and moved to Charlotte in the 1980s when the N.C. legislature outsmarted its Virginia colleagues and passed pro-banking laws. There’s been talk of making Tidewater a series of boroughs like New York but that will never happened.
    Anyway, that was my impression in Nashville. in Lynchburg, Tenn. they gave me a tour of the Jack Daniels distillery. One asked why the bottles are always flat sided. “So they won’t roll around so much under the seat of your car,” the guide said.
    I look forward to your next piece.

  10. I have visited Nashville twice — once moving my daughter into an apartment while she was attending Vanderbilt University, and once to help her move out. I saw bits and pieces of the city, which struck me favorably — the city has some cool restaurants and cafes — but didn’t blow me away as anything extraordinary. The residential neighborhoods could have been from any city in Virginia or North Carolina (the states that I know the best).

    The vignette that most interested me was Music Row — a two or three-block strip of ordinary single-family dwelling houses that have been converted into recording studios and other businesses revolving around the music industry. My reaction was: How utterly ordinary looking. Whatever turned Nashville into a magnet for musical talent (which has transcended its country music origins), it wasn’t the cool office digs.

    I don’t know the history of Music Row, but I strongly suspect that the rise of Nashville’s music industry was entirely an organic movement. It did not spring from the imaginations of visionary mayors and economic developers. One look at Music Row, and you’ll see that it certainly wasn’t an area that has benefited from a lot of government money.

    The other big economic driver is Vanderbilt University. Again, I don’t know the history, but I strongly suspect that the rise of Vanderbilt is a story of the rise of a privately endowed research university that has very little to do with local government economic policy.

    The last factor I would want to explore, as Steve H. has already alluded to, is the role of Tennessee’s tax climate, in particular zero state income taxes.

    One more factor to look at is spirit: Several years back, Nashville experienced terrible, terrible floods. The story was short lived in the national media. Why? I think because Nashvilleans didn’t whinge about injustice. They rolled up their shirtsleeves and got to work fixing things. Civically speaking, they have a strong can-do attitude.

    I look forward to reading your observations when you come back from your trip.

  11. re: ” The story was short lived in the national media. Why? I think because Nashvilleans didn’t whinge about injustice. They rolled up their shirtsleeves and got to work fixing things. Civically speaking, they have a strong can-do attitude.”

    Geeze Bacon… where do you get these story-tales from? Nashville whined big time!

    Flood of federal lawsuits hits District Court

    A group of blue-chip local and national corporations have filed suit against the federal government over two agencies’ handling of the flooding that tormented Nashville in early May 2010.”

    and then after FEMA rushed in to help……….

    ” The Federal Emergency Management Agency wants Metro Nashville to pay back a portion of the federal aid that it received for repairs following the historic May 2010 flood after identifying spending that wasn’t properly documented.

    FEMA’s Office of Inspector General recommended that the agency recoup $413,074 after an audit of the $70.3 million in federal aid provided to Metro for flood damages.”

    But the good news – No one accused Nashville of being inept and corrupt… FEMA paid up and then some!

  12. Peter, I assume if you went to Lynchburg you are a Tennessee squire and landowner (one square foot as I recall mine is) by now thanks to Jack Daniels..

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