SB&D's 2013 Person of the Year: Nashville Mayor Karl Dean
By Mike Randle
"It's good to be Nashville right now," said Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in a wonderful story about his city titled, "Nashville's Latest Big Hit Could Be the City Itself," published in the January 8, 2013 edition of The New York Times. The piece began with this: "Portland knows the feeling. Austin had it once, too. So did Dallas. Even Las Vegas enjoyed a brief moment as the nation's 'it' city. Now, it's Nashville's turn."
Nashville hasn't always been a Southern economic development juggernaut. It failed to keep pace with similar markets its size such as Charlotte, Raleigh and Orlando in the 1980s and early '90s. . .all metros that are much smaller than Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Tampa Bay, South Florida or Atlanta.
Those second-tier major markets – and let's go ahead and mention Austin, Louisville, San Antonio, New Orleans, Richmond and the Triad region of North Carolina, to name a few more – are the bedrock of economic development in the American South, the world's fourth-largest economy.
No U.S. region can boast of so many second-tier major market dynamos that are "big enough to be urban and interesting, but still small enough to have a community feel." That's how Mayor Dean described his city in a blog titled, "Only in Nashville."
Nashville hit its stride in the late 1990s. I recall economic development veteran Fred Harris, then the President of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, telling me in 1997, "Mike, the economy in Nashville is better than I have ever seen it. We have people working who don't even want to work."
But there is a difference in being a driving force in economic development in the South and being the "it" market in the South, or for that matter, in the nation. Today, Nashville is the envy of all Southern cities no matter their size. And to get there, someone had to turn the dial up a notch. . . that person is Mayor Karl Dean.
"The mayor has made economic development a priority since the beginning, and has devoted his leadership, time and financial recourses to create a growth environment," said Ralph Schulz, President and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. "As the co-chair of the Nashville Area Chamber's Partnership 2020 initiative, Middle Tennessee's private/public partnership for economic development, Mayor Dean successfully works to recruit corporate headquarter companies to Nashville, facilitate expansions of existing businesses and create new jobs in the region," Schulz said.
Mayor Dean, a Democrat now in his second term, has been in office since 2007. In that time he has helped his city manage the worst recession in our lifetime and launched Nashville into another stratosphere economically. In fact, in the recently released "2013 Economic Strength Rankings" published by POLICOM, Nashville ranked third among all U.S. metros, behind only D.C./Northern Virginia and Des Moines, yet ahead of hotshots like Austin and Houston.
Economic development is one of Mayor Dean's three priorities. The other two complete what SB&D has pronounced for years as the big three issues any politician must hold as priorities. Dean's other two priorities are education and public safety. He also works to sustain and improve Nashville's high quality of life through numerous initiatives that promote health, sustainability and volunteerism.
It starts with service
Mayor Dean has been serving Nashville officially since he was a public defender in 1990. His many acts of service in Nashville range from cooking and serving meals to the homeless, opening a free one-on-one financial counseling center to help low-income residents reduce debt and build assets, helping residents clean their homes from the devastating Nashville floods of May 2010, to leading a community discussion on the book Life of Pi through the Nashville Reads campaign.
In February, Dean was awarded the Local Leadership Award at the "Friends of National Service" reception in Washington, D.C. The award was presented to Dean for his leadership and innovation in leveraging national service assets to meet local needs. Previous winners of the Local Leadership Award include Mayors Michael Bloomberg of New York and Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans.
A firm believer that growth takes care of a lot of things
In this age of political austerity, Mayor Dean stands out. His philosophy is obvious. In order to keep putting one foot in front of the other, whether it is reducing the deficit, creating more jobs or generating more revenue for his city, he believes you must have growth. Growth, such as we have seen with Nashville's economy of late, takes care of a lot of things. Dean is just not a cut and close the hatch kind of guy.
Dean's signature growth project is the $585 million, 1.2-million-square-foot Music City Center. Located in the heart of downtown, adjacent to both the Bridgestone Arena and the Country Music Hall of Fame and just steps away from the famous Ryman Auditorium and Lower Broadway's honkytonks, the facility will be a huge draw as a convention and tourism destination. It features a 350,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a 57,000-square-foot grand ballroom and our favorite amenity, a four-acre green roof that will be irrigated by a 360,000-gallon run-off water retention tank.
The large convention center idea was first presented to Nashville officials in February 2006. Some politicos in Nashville howled at its price tag. The project didn't gain momentum until Karl Dean was elected Mayor in September 2007. Dean, with the support of an area-wide coalition, pitched the convention center to the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County. In January 2010, the Council overwhelmingly voted to approve construction of the Music City Center, which is large enough to accommodate 75 percent of the nation's convention and visitor market. The new facility, which is about to open, is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of new visitors to Nashville.
While the Music City Center is a brick and mortar testament to Nashville's success, it has been the behind-the-scenes, highly detailed developments headed up by Dean that has lifted this city – formerly the home of the 1969-1971 television variety show Hee Haw set in fictional rural "Kornfield Kounty" – to heights in economic diversity never before seen in Tennessee.
Mayor Dean's first economic development initiative after he took office was to help women and minority-owned businesses receive a more equitable share of Metro Government contracts through the new Office of Minority and Women Business Assistance.
Other economic development initiatives include implementing, through the Mayor's Office of Economic and Community Development, the Fast Track Permitting & One-Stop Business Assistance Program. The Nashville.gov website explains that the fast track program seeks to streamline the permitting of projects by new and existing business by giving them access to representatives of all "applicable local, state and federal agencies in one meeting to outline services, answer questions, fulfill requests and solve problems."
Building on Nashville's core strengths
Dean has built on Nashville's core strengths, which are the music industry, the automotive industry and the health-care sector. Mayor Dean created the Music City Music Council (MC2), a partnership between his office, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Per capita, employment in the music industry in Nashville leads the world by a large margin. MC2 has helped grow and diversify Nashville's music industry in many aspects, including publishing, artist development, technology and marketing. During its creation, more than 40 of Nashville's most respected musicians and music executives laid the groundwork for MC2. The result has solidified Nashville's reputation as THE global music city, not just the center of country music.
The city's music scene is legendary, growing by leaps and bounds, and it is literally "off the charts." It has been legendary for over 75 years as the hub of country music. Yet, today, all aspects of the music and entertainment industry converge in Nashville. One of those convergences is the television series appropriately called "Nashville." The show centers on the music industry in Music City and the series premiere in October 2012 drew nearly 9 million viewers.
Creative, entrepreneurial and touristy, but brawny as well
Nashville's position as a hub for the music industry has greatly enhanced its creative class. Nashville is one of the leading creative centers in America, with more than three times as many record labels, distributors, recording studios and music publishers as Los Angeles.
And Nashville's entrepreneurial spirit is ranked right at the top. According to research by the Martin Prosperity Institute, Nashville ranks in the top 10 U.S. metros for self-employed workers, at 7.7 percent. Not surprisingly, the startup climate here is thriving. And don't forget Middle Tennessee's proximity to the population of the eastern U.S., which has led company after company to relocate to Nashville. In fact, Nashville has welcomed more new residents from Los Angeles than from any other city, according to Internal Revenue Service data.
But like most places in the South, Nashville has a long history in manufacturing. The region is a center for the automotive industry, with Nissan, Bridgestone, GM and other major players in the Southern Automotive Corridor employing tens of thousands. In fact, along with entertainment giants such as Gaylord, which is headquartered in Nashville, Nissan (6,600) and Bridgestone (2,400) are two of the Nashville region's largest employers.
Tennessee, along with Alabama and Kentucky, represent the heart and spine of the Southern Auto Corridor. The main artery is Interstate 65. In 2005, Nissan announced it was relocating its North American headquarters from California to a site right on Interstate 65 in the Nashville metro in Williamson County. The facility became operational in 2008. In addition, the Japanese automaker operates its largest North American plant in the Nashville metro in Rutherford County.
Nashville's third core strength on which Mayor Dean is building is the health-care industry. More than 250 health-care companies have operations in Nashville with an overall economic benefit of about $30 billion supporting more than 200,000 jobs. Some sources claim that more than half of the nation's health-care plans are run by Nashville-based companies.
Health-care giant HCA Holdings is the Nashville area's largest private employer with more than 7,000 employees. Last year, Mayor Dean was instrumental in an HCA project that will bring 2,000 jobs to midtown Nashville. Two office towers of approximately 20 stories each will give HCA plenty of working room in the 900,000-square-foot project.
Constant promotion of his city
Nashville's economy has benefitted from Dean's constant promotion of his city. In economic development, promotion plus a hands-on approach to recruiting are the two most important elements of the practice. In an article published in the Nashville Business Journal in 2011, Brian Reisinger wrote that Mayor Dean "wants to promote Nashville's 'cool' vibe and make the case that he's both a business and neighborhood mayor."
The cool vibe has been accomplished. Rolling Stone magazine deemed Nashville the best music scene in the country and why not? The place is an epicenter of music, entertainment and diversity – both economic and social.
Each year Nashville becomes the home of creative transplants moving in from all over the world. Some of those include actresses Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, musician Jack White and former Vice President Al Gore. And, because of its long history of being the center of the universe for country music, Nashville has been THE home of country music stars for over 70 years.
Yet, having a cool vibe and being a great place to live doesn't always translate into a job generating machine. The practice of economic development has so many definitions and strategies today that it is consistently a political hot button issue. In short, there are those who believe incentives take away revenue from the other two critical items that make a city, county or state great – education and public safety.
As we have written many times over two decades (search "The incentives debate: Part. . .whatever" story from SB&D's Fall 2012 edition), incentives – if properly managed – do not and will not take revenue away from other departments; they only add revenue to those departments.
Dean is a pro-business, pro-incentive politician with a style that harkens back to the late Tennessee Gov. Ned Ray McWherter and former Nashville Mayor and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen. In fact, current Governor Bill Haslam is on that same page. One simple word defines each leader's economic development strategies and that word is "growth." And to consistently grow, leaders must take an aggressive path.
With Dean's promotional nature and pro-business, hands-on approach to turning job generating deals, it is no wonder that Kiplinger named Nashville the Best City for Job Growth.
In his blog on "OnlyinNashville.com," Dean wrote, "I say all the time, and I truly believe, that Nashville's best days are still ahead of us. We really have it all – economic growth, a vibrant tourism industry, a high quality of life for residents, and the best musical talent in the world."