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VOL. 38 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 14, 2014

Challenge: Getting locals to explore downtown

By Bobby Allyn

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Many Antiques and Garden Show of Nashville attendees got their first look at Music City Center. The challenge for tourism officials and downtown businesses is how to get visitors to explore the area.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

When Wills and Camille Morgan, a 70-something couple from Belle Meade, came to the Music City Center recently for an antiques convention, they didn’t plan on sticking around too long.

J. Alexander’s is one of their favorite restaurants, though the location on West End is a bit too noisy for them. And with so many new eateries open in the downtown area, it’s easy to become paralyzed by all the options. Places near Belle Meade, they say, are the safest bet.

“We very seldomly go downtown,” Wills Morgan says. “We’ll come to the antiques show, to the Frist, but that’s about it.

“We’ve been keeping up with all the new restaurants, but knowing where they are and when is the best time to go is another matter.”

Many Middle Tennesseans who attended the Antiques and Garden Show in Nashville held recently at the new convention center echoed the Morgans’ experience: Go to the show, then make a beeline for home.

Some 10,000 attendees were expected over the event’s four days, but what percentage of those people stayed around downtown after foraging antiques and garden wares is hard to say.

Still, the show kept a steady pace of onlookers who took in everything from a 19-century limestone figurine ($16,000) to wrought-iron garden turtles ($12).

Some locals came to check out the new convention center for the first time, others were in the dedicated antique show set, a decent percentage of whom came from out of town.

But parking woes and long lines – a natural product of downtown’s booming development – made exploring the downtown area overwhelming to some natives.

On top of that, the cost of attending is steadily rising. Just ask Bob and Sharon Mullins of Hermitage, who experienced sticker shock when they found they had to cough up $20 for two hours of parking.

“We’ve been going to this convention for decades, and this year the expenses were higher than ever before,” says Sharon Mullins, who added that she and her husband visit downtown about once every three months.

Earl and Mardi Hull, a couple from Murfreesboro, always patronize other businesses when they come to Nashville for conventions.

“When you’re coming to the city, it’s going to be more expensive. You have to plan for that,” Mardi Hull says.

“Downtown Nashville has become more walkable lately. It’s really wonderful. We make it a point to go to a new restaurant every time we’re here.”

For some out-of-towners like Stuart Chappell and Anne Johns, who drove to Nashville from Tuscumbia, Ala., hotels many miles from downtown were the only option. An affordable room in a Brentwood area hotel ending up suiting them best.

“It’s much more expensive to stay downtown and to eat downtown,” says Chappell, a retired furniture maker who comes to the antique show every year.

On the Music City Center, Chappell notes: “In the old convention center, I just about memorized the layout of the show. Here, though, I’ve been walking around for a while, and I still am not sure which way to go.”

Chappell and Johns plan on making some museum stops before they head back to Alabama, although that will be enough to soak up the city’s cultural offerings, they add.

“We’re not huge on food. We’re not huge on shopping,” Johns says.

West Nashvillians Peter and Beth Thevenot who were attending the antique convention find the gathering as a great opportunity to venture through other parts of downtown that, sometimes, hardly feel recognizable anymore, they explain.

“We drive around just to see new buildings being built, new restaurants coming to town, interesting art-related sights,” Peter Thevenot says. “Coming to the antique show is a mainstay for us. We use coming here as a way to get out of our routine.”

Thevenot adds: “This is especially interesting for us because it’s our first time at the Music City Center, which I think added some excitement and energy for a lot of people here.”

Locals and visitors alike, say that going to a trade show at the convention center is enough of an experience.

Some were too exhausted to venture far beyond the show, while others planned on stopping at a downtown restaurant as part of the trip.

But a full-on Nashville journey, most said, should be its own adventure, not an add-on to a convention experience.

Any type of around-the-convention-center exploring, however, was rare at a recent get-together of cattle industry workers at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, where many attendees saw Nashville through the lens of the airport, taxi cabs and Opryland’s hotel, storefronts and convention halls.

Amid a sea of cowboy hats, leather vests and overall-clad folks, retired rancher Thurman Johnson of Kingston says planning other activities beyond the four-day convention isn’t feasible.

“Especially after you retire,” Johnson adds. “Unless you retire with a silver spoon, it’s not so economical.”

Some people like the convenience. Ruby Thomas says staying at the Opryland Hotel during the convention makes life a lot easier.

“It makes it so you don’t have to move around much,” says Thomas of Alamo, Georgia. “You can stay busy all day long without much hassle.”

Vendor Scott Watson sent his wife off to Nashville while he talked to customers at Opryland about his business, which sells animal health products.

He planned to join his wife downtown to enjoy a meal and honky-tonk tunes on Lower Broadway after the trade show.

“It’ll be a lot of fun,” he says. “Especially after 11 days on the road.”

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