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VOL. 35 | NO. 44 | Friday, November 04, 2011

Feeling Nashville's pull

Already a magnet for international residents, the area’s in-migration is really moving too

By Colleen Creamer

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There is a widely held belief that an influx of folks from outside the United States is what caused Nashville-area population to swell over the past 30 years or so. That is not entirely correct.

Three decades ago, the population of the multi-county metropolitan statistical area of Nashville, which includes Davidson and surrounding counties, was about half its current size. A 1990s boom saw tremendous growth and that influx continued to grow into the new millennium, and still does.

In that boom, the area saw its immigrant population grow noticeably, but “in-migration” – which is basically the moving into a different region of the same country or territory – was accelerating as well.

And although there was a slight dip in Nashville’s in-migration in 2004-05, the last half-decade has brought a wave of incoming U.S. residents at a much higher rate than other metropolitan areas – some of which are seeing migrations outward.

So, who are these new Nashvillians, where are they coming from, and why are they coming?

Is it the North Carolina family looking to find a better school for their ADHD son? Or the music executive that fantasized for years about living in Nashville? Is it the California school teacher who wants to retire in Tennessee, or the Texas ‘dreamer’ hoping for a country music career?

It’s all of the above and more.

“Some of our strongest in-migration points have been Memphis, which would not be surprising because of the proximity, but also Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit,” says Garrett Harper, vice president for research and information for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, which tracked numbers for a recent study. “Those have really been the leaders for the last two-to-three years among those 30 cities.”

The Chamber examined 30 markets around the country, including the largest metropolitan areas and the largest in the Southeast. Its data show that Nashville has continued to see moving vans heading in, not out.

From 2005-2009, the “City of Angels” yields the highest amount of people relocating from other states. That may seem somewhat obvious considering Nissan North America decided in 2005 to move its corporate headquarters (and roughly 600 employees) from L.A. to Williamson County. While Nissan did not give an official head count, it did say that 45 percent of their Southern California workforce of 1,300 in-migrated to Tennessee.

However, Crye-Leike’s relocation expert for the Nashville area, Kelly Thomas, maintains that while the Nissan numbers are important, most moving to Nashville are coming from L.A.’s music scene. Thomas says it’s those who’ve been comparing notes with others in the industry on the cost of living here and the quality of life.

“The majority of transferees that I have represented or assisted with a move from all parts of California have predominantly been music related and cost-of-living transferees,” Thomas says.

If they are coming from Los Angeles for quality of life improvements, they are also coming for jobs — seriously, jobs. California’s unemployment rate for September stood at 11.9 percent, a full 2 percentage points higher than Tennessee’s 9.8. However, rates for Davidson, Rutherford and Wilson counties were 1-1.5 percent lower than that; Williamson almost 3 percent lower.

An affordable cost of living combined with Nashville’s growing arts scene is apparently quite a lure as well.

“I think we’ve kind of been America’s best kept secret,” she says. “I am working with a couple coming from L.A. They had a couple of choices, and when they got here and looked around, they said they thought there was no other place to go. I hear this more often than not from the people coming here.”

Susan Rose and husband Chris Kletzien came to Nashville in 2009. Rose transferred from Warner Bros. Los Angeles and had been eyeing Nashville for some time as many Angeleans do.

“I had worked in the record business for years and decided that I couldn’t stand it anymore, but maybe I could keep doing it if I had a change of scenery,” Rose says. “I was fourth-generation Los Angeles and had always wanted to try living in a smaller place. I had been fantasizing about Nashville for years.”

For example, Rose says she had been carefully tracked the incoming of a Trader Joe’s to Nashville on Facebook. When that was a lock, and a job as director of packaging for Warner Bros. Nashville came open, she struck a deal with her husband who was reticent at first about moving.

Kletzien, who recently opened E.T. Burke: Modern with Manners in The Gulch, a high-end boutique furniture store, has Multiple Sclerosis. The former script writer was worried that the level of care in Nashville would not equal that of Los Angeles.

“One of the things I was concerned about was in leaving Los Angeles, because I have Multiple Sclerosis, was that I would be losing my primary care neurologist, one of the best guys in the world,” Kletzien says. “I asked him about it and he said he had an associate who worked at Vanderbilt who is also one of the best guys in the world, so I was relieved when found out about the medical care here.”

So Nashville’s magnet that draws these in-migrationists is comprised of a lower cost of living, Music Row, quality health care and more jobs?

Crye-Leike’s Thomas offers another “pull.” It seems the road for people who are following their dreams of stardom still leads here. The influx from Dallas, she theorizes, has to do with the music industry but with its “dream” side since Dallas doesn’t have Nashville’s Country Music infrastructure.

“If I had to guess, I’d lean towards the music factor,” Thomas says. “They may have more cowboy boots and cowboy hats, but they don’t have Music Row or the Opry, and we all know that’s the first stop with a demo in hand.

Thomas says there is never a shortage of aspiring country artists willing to gamble on Nashville as a vehicle to fame.

“I always have a handful of those coming in with a dream,” Thomas adds.

While looking at the Chamber’s study, Harper saw that Tampa and Orlando were in the top ten of cities with the most in-migration to Nashville, and he wondered if Floridians might be fleeing areas hit by the historic and punishing 2004 hurricane season.

“Certainly, the Florida cities have been really very strong. [In-migration to Nashville] preceded the recession, even for Tampa, for Orlando, and for Miami,” Harper says.

As a part of the Chamber’s Workforce Study, a smaller and more recent study, the Chamber compared itself for years 2008 through 2010 to a subset of similar cities around the country to see what kind of residents Nashville was attracting.

“We found that households that were migrating in had higher incomes than those who were migrating out, which we found to be an interesting facet,” Harper says. “We certainly would like to think it has to do with job opportunities here and that, say, people with lower skills are leaving the market for other opportunities such as they exist. But it’s good for us in Nashville and good for those seeking opportunity here.”

Thomas echoes the results of the Chamber’s studies, saying that Nashville offers a lot more than other comparably sized cities.

“One of the big draws about Nashville is its affordability and its flexibility,” Thomas says, “There is a huge corporate presence here. There is job availability, stability and no state income tax, which is huge.”

So huge, in fact, that numbers show many people are in-migrating here without jobs. Davidson, Rutherford, Wilson and Williamson counties all have unemployment rates well below the national average. Also, the Greater Nashville Area ranked 8th in a list of 65 large cities for Best Cities for Job Growth in 2011 by newgeography.com.

Thomas said she is seeing the usual suspects, families transferring from metropolitan areas for Nashville’s affordability and livability, but now she is also seeing retirees coming to Music City.

“What I have been seeing is Nashville looking like a good place to retire,” Thomas says. “Recently, I got a call from a retired couple who wanted a 65 and over community. They wanted golf. They wanted to relax. They didn’t want hustle and bustle. Now they are buying out in Mt. Juliet in a 55 and over community.”

Waiting in the wings for the economy to shift so she can sell her house in California is Suzanne Osborne, a legal secretary in Auburn, in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, just east of Sacramento.

Osborne, who will retire in the next few years, says she is waiting to come back to Tennessee as a “soft place to fall.” However, she is not willing to take a loss on her California home that plummeted in value after the economic crash. Osborne spent her first 13 years in Fayetteville.

“I plan to move there because I am reaching retirement age, and my money will go a lot farther in Tennessee because the cost of living is so much lower than in California,” Osborne says. “Property taxes are a fraction of what they are here and real estate is a whole lot less. I don’t regret my time here, but I am pulled to Tennessee because of my childhood. I have heart ties there.”

As Thomas reports, Nashville is now “the whole package,” with sports franchises, a competitive arts scene, good health care and a variety of choices in higher education.

With many in the work force now able to work from home, the quality of the destination becomes one of the largest factors in relocating.

When Toni and Bruce McCaskill could not find a school they believed was good enough in Cary, N.C. for their son with ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder], they looked to Nashville. They both wanted to stay in the South and in a culture that was familiar and friendly.

“We decided that this was definitely where we needed to be,” Toni McCaskill says. “I was so excited to see all the stores, with pretty much everything that we could possibly need. There were just too many children for the teachers [in North Carolina] to be able to spend time with the children, so my husband and I researched and decided that Benton Hall Academy [in Franklin] would be a good fit for us, and so far it has been.”

The McCaskills briefly had lived in the Nashville area. Bruce McCaskill works in computer sales and telecommutes from the family home in the Cain Ridge area. Toni is a nurse who says she is sure there will be enough nursing jobs in Nashville when she decides to go back to work.

As Toni demonstrates, a common thread with in-migration is a confidence that things will be better here. Seemingly, these newcomers are feeling Nashville’s pull and not putting up any resistance.

On the whole, there doesn’t seem to be many drawbacks for those looking to move to Nashville, so in-migration apparently will not be slowing any time soon.

Whether or not the area can keep up with the influx is crucial; the region’s highways and feeder streets can only handle so much expansion at a time.

At the very least for Nashvillians, it’s probably better to be popular than not.

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