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NashvilleBy Richard Bradley

What do you do when you’re a blue city in an overwhelmingly red state, and the federal government doesn’t seem to like you very much either? Make friends, influence people and talk about the economy. 

  • A protester during a Trump rally in Nashville, March 2017. Photo by Andrea Morales/Getty
  • Nashville CVC’s Butch Spyridon led the drive to create Tennessee Thrives. Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images
  • A group in support of repealing HB2 in Raleigh, N.C., April 2016. Photo by Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images

It’s strange to think about it now, after all that’s happened since last November, but one of the most hotly debated social issues of 2016 involved bathrooms—specifically, which people could use which bathrooms. That’s largely because in March 2016 North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed HB2, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act. The bill, which also legalized discrimination against gays and lesbians, became best known for its specific targeting of transgender people, who wanted to use the public bathrooms that matched their gender identity.

What Governor McCrory and the Republican-controlled state legislature didn’t expect, didn’t think about or just didn’t give a damn about—before, anyway—was the backlash. The NBA quickly and defiantly moved its All-Star Game to New Orleans. The NCAA rescheduled March Madness games into other states. College football’s ACC relocated its championship game. PayPal abandoned plans to expand a service center in Charlotte, an estimated $2.66 billion economic hit to the state. (Poor Charlotte—it’s probably the bluest city in North Carolina, and it was Charlotte’s law protecting gays and lesbians that the legislature overturned.) The Associated Press estimated—conservatively—that, over 12 years, the bathroom bill would cost North Carolina $3.76 billion. Six months later McCrory lost his bid for reelection in a state that Donald Trump won by four points, making him the first North Carolina governor to lose a reelection bid—ever. And North Carolina furthered a growing reputation as a state so politically dysfunctional that its legislators would rather cost North Carolina billions than let Caitlyn Jenner sit down to pee in a women’s bathroom.

Businesspeople and politicians nationwide watched the North Carolina controversy closely, many with a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God mentality—there were other bathroom bills percolating in numerous state legislatures. Some were the work of right-wing activist groups from outside the states in which they were promoting the legislation, and some of them were more organic. Why the sudden concern with potty trading? The simplest answer is that it is a microcosm of a larger fight about political and social power. These and related pieces of socially conservative legislation were a way for conservative legislators to take aim at cities whose values they disliked—even if it meant hurting the states depending on the cities.

At the moment, almost 70 of the biggest 100 U.S. cities have Democratic mayors; Republicans control a similar percentage of governorships and statehouses, as well as the legislative and executive branches of the federal government. So Republicans see their statewide legislative power as a way to suppress Democratic ideas and policies. One of the lesser-known features of North Carolina’s bathroom bill, for example, was a provision that forbade its cities from raising their minimum wages to a level higher than the state’s.

But for conservatives, there’s an awkward—and consequently, for the most part unacknowledged—reality here: Cities are the economic engine of this country. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, 90 percent of America’s gross domestic product comes from metro regions. The 23 biggest metro areas alone account for half the country’s GDP. And whether it comes to immigration, innovation, socialization or globalization, cities are driving more and faster change than rural areas, which leaves rural voters feeling left out.

  • House majority leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, right, and House Republican caucus chairman Glen Casada of Franklin signal to colleagues on the House floor during a debate about Senate Bill 1556, which allows mental health counselors to turn away patients if they morally object to their lifestyle. Photo by AA/Erik Schelzig
  • Trump speaking in the Rose Garden after the House pushed through a healthcare bill, May 4, 2017. Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Via Getty Images
  • Former chief of staff Mark Cate with governor Bill Haslam in 2014. Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP/Rex/Shutterstock

This dynamic also underlies President Trump’s manifest dislike of American cities, which, despite the fact that he’s never really lived anywhere else, he has described as hotbeds of carnage and chaos. Since last November’s presidential election, American cities nationwide have faced a wave of hostility from the White House to a degree unseen since the urban unrest of the 1960s and ’70s. Almost every domestic action Trump has taken—from his proposed federal budget, to drug policy, to cracking down on sanctuary cities, to proposed cuts in infrastructure funding, to healthcare efforts—takes aim at cities. This may be the definition of killing the goose that lays the golden egg, but it both plays to Trump’s political base and seems to satisfy some sort of primal need on the part of the president to exact revenge on those parts of the country that didn’t support him. Cities are an American success story. But some Americans seem to want to tear them down.

Back before the election, perhaps the closest watchers of what was going on in North Carolina were businesspeople and elected officials in cities kind of like Charlotte—politically and socially progressive, business-friendly cities with thriving economies that happened to be located in crimson-conservative states. And of all those islands of blue floating in seas of red—places like Austin, Texas; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Orlando, Fla.; Atlanta—perhaps the most concerned were the people of Nashville. That’s because Nashville had a lot to lose, and there were plenty of signs that Tennessee’s General Assembly was equally inclined to pass legislation that could derail Nashville’s remarkable growth. “We saw what can happen in North Carolina when the state doesn’t take those kinds of bills seriously in terms of their [economic] impact,” says Butch Spyridon, head of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation (CVC) and one of the most influential figures in the U.S. tourism community. In Nashville, “you have this momentum. How do you sustain it? Well, you sustain it by not hurting yourself,” he says.

How Nashville has gone about steering clear of divisive social issues and trying to promote unifying economic ones is a work in progress—but so far, it’s succeeding. The city has, by and large, managed to dodge the social bullets that have hampered Charlotte and other like-minded places. It’s also a story that could prove meaningful for the rest of the country, as policymakers, politicians, businesspeople and others try to bridge the divides that separate our country.

Of all the American cities that have enjoyed rebounds since the financial crisis a decade ago, perhaps none are surging like Nashville. Branded as Music City for its unparalleled music scene, it has become one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, with 13.9 million visitors in 2016, an increase of 45 percent in 10 years. New restaurants and hotels are popping up almost every week. People from all over the country are moving to Nashville because of economic opportunity, an affordable cost of living and welcoming culture, as well as a new willingness on the part of young people to seek futures outside of traditional but prohibitively expensive cities like New York and San Francisco. (As of July, the unemployment rate in Tennessee was a state-record low of 3.6 percent compared with a national average of 4.4 percent; Nashville’s is even lower at 3.3 percent.) That’s also attracting people from all over the world: Nashville has one of the largest Kurdish populations in the U.S., and one of the fastest-growing Latino populations.

  • Nashville’s entertainment district is a popular tourist destination. Photo by Nina Dietzel/Getty Images

Nashville is asserting itself as a top-tier American city. And it’s also very blue: Nashville’s last seven mayors, dating back to 1962, have been Democrats, including the current mayor, Megan Barry. There are some complicating factors: Some of metro Nashville’s suburbs are deeply conservative. But in other ways, the pattern holds true. According to data compiled by the Nashville Chamber of Commerce—not known as a liberal organization—Nashville generates around 35 percent of the Tennessee GDP.

Tennessee, on the other hand, is remarkably red. “We’re not just red, we’re very red,” says Mark Cate, the former chief of staff to Republican governor Bill Haslam and the founder of the public affairs firm Stones River Group. Twenty-eight members of Tennessee’s 33-person Senate are Republican; 73 members of its 99-person House of Representatives are Republican.

In the early months of 2016, the Tennessee General Assembly debated bills that might have undermined Nashville’s reputation as an inclusive and welcoming city. One would have made the Bible the official state book. One would have defunded the University of Tennessee Office of Diversity and Inclusion and redirected some of that money to purchase “In God We Trust” bumper stickers for police cars (the office was eventually disbanded for the 2016–17 academic year). And, yes, another bill would have forced transgender people to use the bathrooms that corresponded to their gender at birth.

Those bills didn’t become laws, but another one did. In April 2016 Governor Haslam signed Senate Bill 1556, informally known as the therapist law, which would allow mental health counselors to turn away patients if they objected to those patients because of “sincerely held principles.” The somewhat confusing language had originally been more specific; before it was amended, the law had said that counselors could turn away patients because of “sincerely held religious beliefs.” In Tennessee, folks knew what that meant. If you didn’t want to counsel a gay person, you didn’t have to.

The backlash wasn’t on a bathroom bill scale, but it hurt. The American Counseling Association canceled its 2017 conference in Nashville, which would have brought some 3,000 visitors and $4 million in revenue to the city. A Colorado-based group called the Centers for Spiritual Living canceled a meeting in Nashville, as did the Human Rights Campaign. Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and the state of California banned government travel to Tennessee.

The therapist law was a shot across the bow for Nashville, and it prompted several alarmed reactions. One was that the CVC’s Spyridon led a drive to create a statewide organization—with a special emphasis on Tennessee’s four biggest cities, Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga—called Tennessee Thrives. Inspired by a similar organization called Georgia Prospers, Tennessee Thrives is a coalition of nearly 400 businesses that want to gently but firmly remind state legislators of the lessons of North Carolina. The companies that have signed on to Tennessee Thrives—including Nashville-based Hospital Corporation of America, Jack Daniel’s and Bridgestone—promoted the message, “Tennessee is a great place to live, work and visit. Let’s keep it that way.” Ralph Schulz, the president of Nashville’s Chamber of Commerce, explains, “Businesses were happy to sign up for it because what Tennessee Thrives says was fundamentally already in their HR policies.” Adds Mark Cate of the Stones River Group, “We want to stand up for nondiscrimination. It wasn’t about starting a war here; it was just to make sure that we can clearly state just how important this is.” By all accounts, the message was received.

  • Mayor Megan Barry speaks during a session of the National Immigrant Integration Conference in Nashville, December 2016. Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP/Rex/Shutterstock

Another factor was the role of the Middle Tennessee Mayors Caucus, a group of 40 mayors, both Democrats and Republicans who meet regularly to discuss regional economic development. A moderating force, the caucus was deeply involved in the April 2017 passage of a bill called the Improve Act, which increased the state gasoline tax to raise money for much-needed infrastructure projects statewide. Crucial to Nashville was the inclusion of a “local option transit surcharge,” which basically said that some specific counties and cities could add a local tax for funding a local transit program, as long as the local voters approved it. Nashville is in dire need of improved transportation to handle its growth, and Barry is making a major political push for a new, comprehensive transit system that includes light rail, so the law and its local carve-out were a huge win for the city.

Barry herself is really the third leg of Nashville’s effort to maintain its momentum. She’s worked assiduously to build relationships with state legislators who might not generally look fondly on Nashville. “I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time [with the legislature] making friends,” Barry told me. “It’s just a lot harder to vote against something if you actually have a relationship with the people supporting it. What we’ve tried to do is find the stuff that we could work on together.”

“There are clearly legislators that have major philosophical differences with Mayor Barry and some of the other mayors,” Cate says. “But she and the other mayors are doing a nice job of reaching out. It’s not an us-versus-them posture. It’s finding middle ground on the subject of jobs and job creation.”

Of course, there are still difficult issues. Gun rights, for example, is an area where a growing city and a deep-rooted state culture of gun ownership are invariably going to clash. Spyridon and others played roles in blocking the passage of a law that would have allowed off-duty cops to bring their guns into any ticketed event—Nashville’s enormous New Year’s Eve celebration, for example, or Tennessee Titans games. The NFL banned off-duty carry in 2013, and fears of possibly having NFL games relocated out of state prompted the bill’s rejection. But in May, the governor signed a law legalizing the sale and possession of gun silencers. It was called the Tennessee Hearing Protection Act, but for many in Nashville it might have been called an incitement to handgun violence.

The silencer bill was a setback, but not a shock in a massively progun state and not something likely to have an enormous effect on tourism or economic development. But some of the calm may be temporary. Tennessee will elect a new governor in 2018, and it’s entirely possible that social issues involving guns or other hot-button topics will reenter the state conversation during the campaign.

And though Barry and other mayors have made progress in relationships with the state legislature, Trump is another looming threat, with the potential to be even more damaging to Nashville than a bad bill. Like mayors from both parties around the country, Barry admits to being concerned about White House positions on the federal budget, healthcare, drug policy, immigration, infrastructure spending (it’s clearly not the priority Trump said it would be during the campaign), climate change and more. “We realized with what happened in November,” Barry says, “that cities are really going to have to figure out the complex problems that we’re facing. Cities are going to have to lead.”

  • Cityscape

    WHERE TO WORK, INVEST AND PLAY IN NASHVILLE

Warner Music Nashville

Since its founding in 2009 as part of the expansion plan of Warner Music Group, Warner Music Nashville has signed country music power players such as Hunter Hayes and Brett Eldredge. It’s poised to bring 175 new jobs to the city in the next year thanks to a new financial services division. 20 Music Square E., 615.748.8000, warnermusicnashville.com

Citizen Kitchens

Dubbing itself a “food business incubator,” Citizen Kitchens is a culinary one-stop shop for local food entrepreneurs by providing access to licensed kitchen space, storage, commercial equipment and sales and business support—for a small fee. A second location is set to open in Nashville in early 2018. 4611 Alabama Ave., citizenkitchens.com

Jumpstart Foundry

This locally based healthcare innovation fund supports early-stage healthcare companies across the U.S. It has now partnered with the Nashville Entrepreneur Center for an initiative to make Nashville a hub for healthcare entrepreneurs. 604 Gallatin Ave., Suite 211, 615.810.9316, jsf.co

Kimpton Aertson Hotel

Nestled in the midtown corridor, this new boutique hotel strikes a balance between local and exotic with an eclectic collection of artwork from local Hatch Show Print paired with pieces from European and Asian artists. 2021 Broadway, 615.340.6376, kimptonhotels.com

Thompson Nashville

Opened last year in the Gulch, the 224-room Thompson Nashville offers unique local touches like vinyl on loan from Jack White’s Third Man Records, and bespoke jeans that guests can order from Imogene + Willie and have fitted in their rooms. 401 11th Ave. S., nashvillereservations@thompson hotels.com, 615.262.6000, thompsonhotels.com

21c Nashville

Housed in the Gray & Dudley Building that was constructed in 1900, 21c is both a 124-room hotel and a 10,500-square-foot contemporary art museum. Guided docent tours of current exhibitions are offered every Wednesday and Friday. 221 2nd Ave. N., 615.610.6400, 21cmuseumhotels.com/nashville

The Mockingbird Nashville

Master chef Maneet Chauhan and Chicago restaurateurs Brian Riggenbach and Mikey Corona teamed up to create this upscale version of an American diner that opened this summer as a hub of activity in Nashville. 121A 12th Ave. N., info@mockingbirdnashville.com, 615.741.9900, mockingbirdnashville.com

Prince’s Hot Chicken

If you’re looking to try authentic Nashville cuisine, Prince’s is a must. The historic joint—as well as its signature hot chicken—has been around for nearly 100 years. It’s one of the best meals in town. 123 Ewing Drive, #3, 615.226.9442, princeshotchicken.com

Henrietta Red

Offering a simple, fresh menu of contemporary dishes, this Germantown restaurant focuses on changeable, vegetable-based cuisine. With a variety of seafood, an oyster bar and a curated cocktail menu, it’s the perfect date-night place. For a more customized experience, there’s a private dining room and event services available. 1200 Fourth Ave. N., 615.490.8042, henriettared.com

Grand Ole Opry

Having been housed in six different venues including the Ryman Auditorium and finally the Grand Ole Opry House, the Opry is an institution of American music that’s going strong after 90 years. See a show or book a backstage tour and prepare to witness a part of history. 2804 Opryland Drive, 800.733.6779, opry.com

The Frist Center for the Visual Arts

Since debuting in 2001, the Frist has maintained a top spot in the evolving local visual arts scene. Current and upcoming exhibits include: State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now and Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art. 919 Broadway, mail@fristcenter.org, 615.244.3340, fristcenter.org

The Standard at the Smith House

Built in the 1840s, the Smith House has been reinvented, and now it’s a private club, cigar bar and live events space catering to high net worth individuals. Though it’s members only (with a $3,300 yearly fee), nonmembers are free to dine in the restaurant. 167 Rosa L. Parks Blvd., 615.254.1277, smithhousenashville.com

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