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.