Bernstein: Growth not always great for those outside downtown

Friday, November 1, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 44
By Hollie Deese

Bob Bernstein at Fido in Hillsboro Village

-- Leigh Singleton | The Ledger

Bob Bernstein has been in business in Nashville for nearly three decades, opening up his first Bongo Java location on Belmont Boulevard 27 years ago. He recognizes he has been a part of the change and growth of Nashville but is unsure what the city’s plan is for itself, and what that means for him as a business owner.

But he definitely thinks we are having an identity crisis.

“I feel Nashville's lost and doesn't know what it wants to be. It did a remarkable job of turning nothing into this tourist place. I mean, this is a place that when I moved here in '88, none of us moved here on purpose. It was all reluctant. Now people are moving here on purpose. Everybody wants to be here,” he says.

To him, one of the biggest examples of Nashville losing its way and “jumping the shark” was when Studio B on Music Row was in danger of being torn down, and it took musician Ben Folds to intervene and save it.

“It's not that they wanted to tear it down that bothered me,” he says. “It's that nobody cared.”

What are some big challenges, as a business owner that are coming from the growth?

“Everybody seems to think that growth is good for business. And to me there, it's created a lot of challenges. Some people think we complain because it's about increased competition for business. And there is some of that, but just trying to find employees, trying to just pay rent when rent keeps going up. Everything's going up, in terms of the costs.

“And it's just getting harder and harder - people don't want to commute to your place anymore because it's hard to find parking. It's hard to get through traffic. Some of our customers have switched from being almost all regulars to a lot more tourists and travel, which is more inconsistent. Like, people talk about the NFL draft being the greatest thing for the city, but there's a lot of us who are outside the downtown corridor who are down the weekends when you have a marathon and the NFL draft in town. It wasn't great for everybody.’’

When you see all those cranes there is almost a perception of success for all.

“Growth was sold as a thing to enable us to do things as a city. And I haven't seen the evidence, the trickle down. I like some of the things that have been added to Nashville. I mean, I just got back from a Titans game, and that kind of was one of the big things that kicked off this growth. But all the growth, and all the traffic, and all those other thing, it's such a different city than when I moved here in 1988.’’

So in your perfect world, what are some positive changes we could be doing now? We're in the middle of growth. It's happening. So how do we move forward in a way that's positive for business owners?

“I don't know. It's not that I'm against Nashville growth. It's just, I don't know where we're going. And I think that's the general feeling when talking to friends and business owners. I don't think the city knows what it wants to be.

“I moved here in '88 to be a newspaper reporter for the Business Journal. And I remember the city at the time was really debating whether the phrase "Music City" was a good thing or a bad thing for the city. Whether it invoked the Hee Haw country music thing that a lot of business people were against. They wanted a new slogan, a new feeling to the city, which Butch Spyridon in the Tourism Bureau said, "No, we need to embrace it and we need to go." And you know, actually he's done too good of a job.

"I think he's done a remarkable job, but I think the issue now is, what's next?

"To me, it looks like we need to decide what we want to be and then started making decisions. We wanted to become a tourism city, we wanted more growth, and it's done remarkable. But now it's like, how many more pedal taverns or trucks with tourists yelling and screaming down the street in hot tubs do we need? Or scooters sitting everywhere?

"I think this is why Mayor Briley got defeated, because there was a general angst out there. Nobody knows what we're doing. Nobody knows why we're growing. Because we see the city broke, and we see schools that are crumbling and need help, and we see no sidewalks. There's a whole list of things the growth was supposed to help with.

“After Amazon decided to come here The Tennessean said that was the most positive economic news in our city's history. And it may have been the most important economic news in the city, but I'm not sure it was positive. I mean, we're giving incentives to a company whose mission is to put people like me out of business. We just attracted all these high-paying jobs and they're building warehouses. They're giving jobs. But what does this company do? The company puts small business out of business.’’

Do you own your property or do you rent?

"We don't own our Fido building and that's our biggest profit for sales. So that's where I'm in the same boat as everybody else. But the good news is I own some of my other properties, so I feel lucky and safe, but I'm still nervous about my biggest profit center."

In your perfect world, what would be a dream scenario for what's next for Nashville?

“I think Nashville needs an overall vision statement. Whether we're going to be the most family-friendly, kid-friendly, something that's meaningful. And then start making decisions around it. And also that we decide we want to save local business in this town.

“I remember Megan Barry when she was mayor had a meeting in our backroom at Fido and I walked in and she said, “What does small business need?” And I said we need rent control. You're talking about affordable housing, but where's any kind of incentive for people that help build these neighborhoods to be able to stay? You say you love Fido, but Fido's not going to be here in six, seven years unless something happens.

“Sometimes I facetiously say it's all my fault because growth follows coffee houses. And we opened one in Belmont, Hillsboro, East Nashville… It's like wherever we opened, that's the neighborhoods that I complain about.

“We need to decide what it means to maintain these neighborhoods. If not it's just going to look like every other city. The way I start to see 12th Avenue and I start to see what's happening with the changes in Hillsboro Village and Germantown, most of the stuff I can get anywhere. And so what, what does it mean to maintain neighborhoods? Who's coming here to afford all these $700,000 houses? And where are my employees supposed to live?

“I'm on the Chamber of Commerce Education Committee, and it's just fascinating to look at the schools. A lot of ways the schools struggle is because of the growth in Nashville. Kids’ families can't afford to stay in their houses. They're moving around, which means these kids aren't staying at school year-round, changing demographics in the schools. And a whole lot of issues those kids are facing are because of Nashville growth."

What do you want Nashville to be?

“I want Nashville to maintain its look, feel and taste. And I'm afraid it's becoming generic. I moved here and people explained because of the co-writing nature of this city, where songwriters co-write all the time, which doesn't happen anywhere, it's just permeating the whole city. When I opened my businesses, all my neighbors were there to say, "Hey, congratulations. And anything we do to help."

Now you open a coffee house and somebody else wants to open a coffee house across the street from you. I moved here and stayed here because Nashville's an easy place to be. It's affordable, you could drive anywhere. And then it became this really exciting place to be. I don't know if it's my stage of life now of who I am, but I don't enjoy it as much. It's helped my pocketbook but not my way of life."