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VOL. 43 | NO. 44 | Friday, November 1, 2019

Spyridon: ‘Growth doesn’t scare me. Assholes scare me’

By Hollie Deese

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Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation.

-- Photo By Michele Morrow | The Ledger

Since 1991 Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation, has been a fixture as Nashville’s unwavering champion for visitors as Nashville’s hospitality industry has evolved from niche music fans to a year-round destination for convention, business and leisure – as well as the music.

He admits the growth has been hard on resources and residents. But he can’t overlook all of the positives too.

“We are the envy of the majority of the country,” he says. “Everybody's talking about Nashville from an economic development standpoint, as a leisure destination, a cool brand that we really work hard on. What I want to do now is show them how you sustain something like that intelligently instead of being in the city that couldn't handle success and limped back to the way we were.”

Spyridon spoke with The Ledger about wrapping our arms around the success we have created, wrapping our arms around the unintended consequences of success while maintaining a quality of life for residents that still embraces tourists and the $7 billion in revenue they provide. He also talked about the longing for ‘old Nashville’ and property taxes.

What are some of the biggest challenges we're facing immediately from growth?

“It’s probably not different than what a lot of people would say. Affordable housing, available workforce. And if we lump all of transit together, both the ability to get around, in particular downtown, and a bigger mass transit issue. Something that's bubbling up more is the more aggressive nature of the panhandlers and homeless. The residents and the visitors have some rights too, and they have the right to feel safe and be safe.’’

How do we overcome those challenges?

“I think it probably has to start with a larger police presence, which goes back to getting more individuals to apply for the vacant positions. I'm guessing the number, but give or take a few any given day, there's 200 plus vacancies in the department. We need to be fully staffed.’’

How can we bridge that gap?

“We have to be thoughtful and deliberate. The growth is phenomenal in a mostly really good way. But with the growth comes growing pains and the growing pains should lead to smart growth. But with the growth comes growing pains and the growing pains should lead to smart growth. We don't disagree with 70 or 80% of the community about the issue. Some of the issues that tourism causes, and some of the issues that tourism is affected by, they're the same. And what affects us probably affects Vanderbilt, HCA and Nissan. So we're all one, and for me Nashville’s strength has always been in coming together to solve problems and create opportunities. So much success has led to people forgetting that's how we got here.

“I probably worry more about us losing our way as a community. What's really strong about Nashville is we collaborate, we cooperate and we find solutions together. And the success has bubbled up into the angst and divisiveness, but you’d much rather be growing than dying. And I hear, ‘I miss the old Nashville.’ Well, do you miss when lower Broad was boarded up and full of peep shows and hookers? Is that the old Nashville you miss? We have to look at it all, but growth is way better than the other. But smart growth is ideal.’’

Is there an ‘us against them’ mentality among residents for tourists? When people say they miss the old Nashville, maybe they miss what they think Nashville was, the small town aspect that isn’t really the reality anymore.

“You kind of have to remember where we've come from. I do a lot of public speaking and I'm always prepared for somebody who's just going to attack our success. What I find is most people love it. What they don't love is maybe the unintended consequences. Like the vehicles on Lower Broad - who saw that coming? We don't recruit them or really market them and we certainly don't license them, but we get the blame for them. To me the two things, tourist-wise, that are the most painful are the vehicles and we'll throw scooters in there. And the second one was the Airbnb.

“Airbnb boomed because of hotel rates. Well, now we're building more hotels so rates are going to come down. But those are infringements that we can do something about. It's not necessarily a tourism problem. It's a symptom. Most people love that visitors love our city. And love that they leave $7 billion behind. And love that they leave $7 billion behind. How do you replace that? If we try to turn that spigot off, you almost can't. I'm going to say it. The mayor and I talked a little bit today about it is that we have to get our arms around it or hell, we won't have to worry about it going away. It will go away. It will implode at the pace it's going.

“How do you replace that? If we try to turn that spigot off, you almost can't. I'm going to say it. The mayor and I talked a little bit today about it is that we have to get our arms around it or hell, we won't have to worry about it going away. It will go away. It will implode at the pace it's going.’’

So how do we sustain it from this point?

“We have to get our arms around, and it pains me to say, ‘transportainment,’ aggressive homelessness and affordable housing. Those are probably the three biggest because some of that will take care of workforce, some of that will take care of traffic, certainly downtown traffic. It's like dominoes and if we find a couple of the first dominoes that we can literally do something about, then we got a shot at fixing any other stuff, short of mass transit. I don't have the answer for that – that is such a bear. But status quo is not OK.

“We think the neighborhoods are the key to our long-term sustainability. And that doesn't mean overrun with visitors. That means the unique character and culture of Nashville lives in the neighborhoods. Lower Broad and downtown, it's our theme park. But what differentiates Nashville? The neighborhoods.

“I'm going to give this industry, the hospitality industry, more credit. Germantown wouldn't have the restaurants it has, Wedgewood Houston would not be as evolved as it is, East Nashville wouldn't have what it's got if all these things hadn't worked together. Protecting them is critical. But without the hospitality industry, you've probably set this dial back 10 or 15 years.

“I don't think growth for growth's sake is the answer. I think everything has its rightful role, everything being healthcare, education, hospitality, music, automotive. It all makes this city work, run and thrive. We were the only people fighting to keep Walgreens off Lower Broad five years ago. Because that kind of corporate creep isn't good, especially for the neighborhood. There's a place we need Walgreens. We don't need them on lower Broad. Let’s help our neighborhoods maintain their unique character.’’

It seems in many ways we are watching neighborhoods define and redefine themselves in real time.

“I agree completely. It has allowed the creative community to flourish. I answer to so many different people, but one of them is the Tourist Commission. One of the commission members asked to set up a meeting in East Nashville with some of the small boutique businesses, so we went over to one of the shared individual workspaces on Gallatin with Michael Weintraub Photography, Carter Guitars, a guy making backpacks and vinyl 45 album record carriers. There were all these retailers and creators that we had no idea about, and now we're working with three of them on a promotion in New York.

“So we're finding ways to help with our art. We're finding ways to help with our photography. We're finding ways to bring journalists to talk about what's over there.’’

The NFL Draft drew huge numbers some complained about but I think it also made people feel really proud to see how great a time everyone seemed to have.

“If there were give or take 200,000 people a day, we sold 30,000 rooms out of 31,000. Let's say there were two people per room, so that gets us to 60,000. The rest were locals. Nashville got a free world class event and they got to be proud of their city. And then the same thing with New Year's Eve or July 4 - 340,000 people on July 4, we sold 26,000 rooms. We make it sound like Nashville doesn't like this stuff. They're coming out in droves to take it in. They want to be part of history. They want to be part of something really different and cool.’’

"After the draft people were so proud of their city. And I think Nashville still has that. And I probably worry more about us losing that part of our character than I do the physical character. Because losing that will definitely lead to losing the physical character.

"And maybe that's what everyone is really afraid of losing when they're afraid of growth, that aspect of Nashville.

“We care about each other. We go out of the way to help each other. We're family. I've never really thought about it until you made that comment, but I have that fear.

“Growth doesn't scare me. Assholes scare me. I'm as frustrated as anybody in traffic, but every day I make sure I let at least one car in that's trying to turn ahead of me. Just to be mindful to be nice. It's more intentional now. It used to be more second nature. Now it has to be more intentional."

What's next for you in your dream for Nashville's next steps?

“I wouldn't mind seeing a moratorium on hotels. I do think as a city we need to pause, because there are 6,000 rooms under construction. We ought to pause that a little bit. And then take a real hard look at managing the success. Our strategic plan was updated this past spring and everything about it is workforce, transportation, housing. So will you shift to protecting the success but also addressing the growing pains that come with that success?

“And Nashville may not want to hear it but we're going to need a property tax increase. And with that, we can address a lot of our ills. Public Works needs more staff. Teachers need more pay. People can say, "Well why don't we just take money from tourism?" Well, if you take money from tourism, that's going to be one-time money because it's going to dry up. You've got to grow it.’’

Everyone probably wants some tourism money.

“Most of it goes to the state. So how do we get the state to take better care of Nashville? Davidson County is the state's cash cow, but they don't put back in as much as they benefit. We're a symptom and a symbol of what all's going on, good and bad. But when you don't have an income tax, importing sales tax is way better than raising it. And that's what we do. We import sales tax for the city and the state. We don't tell them how to spend it on any of our business.

“As long as we are a sales tax based economy, we have to drive that revenue or you're going to have to raise it on the locals. People must not think that I live in Davidson County or that I care. I care about my property taxes, I care about high sales tax, but I like my quality of life too. So I'd much rather import that revenue than tax myself.

“We're doing a promotion in New York and somebody asked why we don't take that money and give it to teachers? It's $100,000. That $100,000 might help me drive a million here, vs. how much of a raise are teachers going to get? Five bucks each, one time. As long as we are a sales tax based economy, we have to drive that revenue or you're going to have to raise it on the locals. People must not think that I live in Davidson County or that I care. I care about my property taxes, I care about high sales tax, but I like my quality of life too. So I'd much rather import that revenue than tax myself.”

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