Podcast: The Leadership Middle Tennessee Experience



At the 2017 Leadership Middle Tennessee, entrepreneurs, business owners and organization leaders brought to the table their experiences with building a city they want to live in, exploring how the region’s rapidly-changing changing culture have affected not only their own ventures, but the community as a whole.


The many conversations hosted at LMT also brought to light behind-the-scenes details about the area’s growth, including that hosted by Renata Soto, the co-founder and executive director of Conexión Américas.


In her presentation, Soto spoke about the importance of organizations like Conexión Américas and its partner Casa Azafrán to the immigrant population in Nashville and surrounding areas, delving into the story of the organization and how an influx of Latino immigrants in the early ‘90s took Nashville by surprise.


“By the time that Nashvillians and everybody in Tennessee and everybody in the country is taking the census in 2000, everybody’s waiting to see what the census will say about places like Nashville because what we’ve been feeling about the demographic change is that we’re expecting the census to tell us something,” she said. “And in fact, that’s what happened. In places all over the country, actually, for the first time in U.S. history, for Latinos the percentage growth was greater at places that were not typically seen as strongholds of the Latino community.”


It was shortly after that census that Conexión Américas was founded, and today the organization is one of the most well-known non-profits in Nashville, serving and supporting immigrants with programs from English classes to entrepreneurial incubators.


However, of all the services they offer, one focus stands out in particular for Soto: The education program.


“One of the most important things that we do is working with schools like Overton High School. We believe that when you ask an immigrant parent-- in particular a Latino parent, but I would say that for immigrants and refugees, this is a shared dream-- ‘What is the most important thing that you hope you accomplish by the sacrifice you’re doing to come here, or by leaving everything behind that you know to start fresh in a new place where you don’t know the language and you’ve got to start learning everything from system to language to culture? What is it?’” she said. “Most people would say that it is that ‘my kids will have an education.’”


Immigrant and refugee populations aren’t the only ones to have seen intense growth recently, however, and the the “Davidson County Livability, Living the Dream” panel tackled how 81 people moving into Nashville every day affects the housing cost and availability.


Among the issues facing a quickly-growing city is finding the line between revitalization and gentrification, which Senior Advisor for Affordable Housing’s Adrian Bond Harris defined during the presentation.


“There’s a difference between gentrification and revitalization. I think a lot of times when you revitalize an area, it is looked at as gentrification. The difference is, if you bring the community along with you and you develop in a context-sensitive way, then that’s revitalization,” Harris said.


Where people live also affects where they drive. Keeping in mind the future of inner-city transportation is also a big part of building affordable housing in a city that is growing so quickly.


“Not only have I gotten away from cars, and am looking towards autonomous vehicles… there’s a problem with getting people anywhere, and once they’re there downtown they can’t get around and, hey, why don’t you live, work and play at the same place?” said Mark Cleveland, founder of Hytch.


Those are just some of the problems facing Nashville as one of America’s newest “it cities.”


It’s that “it city” persona that exemplifies the brand created by LMT presenter and  President/CEO Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. Butch Spyridon, who spent the first part of this decade figuring out what Nashville wanted to be when it grew up.


In his presentation, Spyridon talked rebranding on a massive scale, showing that building a brand is establishing the value of what it has to offer and that branding Nashville was no different. And, as many entrepreneurs know, value is a big part of brand.


“Live on the Green we’ve worked with a couple years as they do their weekly free events. One of the other elements of what we’re doing is that so much music is free. The honky tonks don’t have a cover charge. July 4th is free. New Year’s Eve is free. Live on the Green is free. Musician’s Corner is free. CMA has free music. So even if hotel is a little out of control, you get great value,” he said.


While the changing public image of Nashville has effectively meant new tourism, a spike in population and so much more, Spyridon’s new concern is to whether the success is sustainable or if there really can be too much of a good thing.


“My biggest fear is that we’re going to implode over success, and that’s a sad story, if we let that happen. Because we are a goldmine right now,” he said.


It was a sentiment mirrored in the “Pockets of Revitalization – Entrepreneurship and Creativity Expressed Through the Foodie Revolution” panel, during which Puckett’s owner Claire Crowell discussed some of the growing pains she and fellow restaurateurs have faced during Nashville’s boom.


“I think, frankly, a lot of the restaurateurs I talk to are fairly ready for some stabilization, especially in the employee market, but I think we’ll enjoy the residual effects of the work we’ve done over the last five years for a long time, even if we do see a slight pumping of the brakes,” Crowell said.


In addition to maintaining high standards for hospitality and food, owning a restaurant in a rapidly changing city also means keeping up with the values of its citizens-- something Tom Moralis, restaurateur and owner of TomKats, has made a key part of how his businesses operate and appeal to customers.


“I think recognizing that there’s an X and a Y and the 20-and-under, the Z generation is like X and Y on steroids. So we’re investing in a concept called EIO-- everything is organic. And that’s what people expect; they want clean healthy food,” he said.


Although they vary in their day-to-day, the panelists and presenters had one common goal: Making Nashville the best place to live for as many people as possible.


“As someone who has a stake in the community, I feel it’s important to put my voice out there and try to build the kind of place I do want to spend the rest of my life in, have my family and do that whole thing,” said Consumer and Community spokesperson Dawn Majors.


Clark Buckner is co-founder of B2B podcast production agency Relationary Marketing. He also serves on staff at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center and actively volunteers in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.