October 25, 2021 6:00am

Nashville Power Poll Members Divided Over Transportainment

Plus: Some thoughts on our tourism explosion in general

Photo of Bruce Dobie
Nashville, TN Correspondent

Nashville Power Poll members appear divided over whether the more raucous elements of downtown need to be reeled in, or left as they are.

This was expressed in a couple of different ways.

First, the results of our October survey show that most members think that the transportainment industry—that being the farm tractors and open-air buses carrying drinkers around downtown—should be "completely eliminated." BUT, a sizable number of Power Poll members—only a few percentage points fewer—say that eliminating them is too harsh and the transportainment industry has every right to do what it's doing.

Meanwhile, as to opting out of the state's open container law—which would effectively eliminate alcohol intake on the party buses and sharply curtail their activities—most said we should not take such action. In other words, Power Poll members seem fine with alcohol in vehicles, just so long as it's not the driver's.

IN OUR NOT-SO-SERIOUS QUESTION OF THE MONTH, THIS JUST IN: Most do not think the Commodores football team will win any of its remaining five games, which are all against SEC opponents.

Meanwhile, here are the specific questions and answers to this month's Power Poll:

The Power Poll is not a scientific poll. The Power Poll surveys important, significant, influential people in U.S. towns and cities to glean what the thought leaders in those markets are thinking. Power Poll is non-partisan and asks questions of a local nature. In so doing, it strives to build consensus and shape constructive discussions.

In this Power Poll, a total of 1,276 members were queried by email. 475 responded for a response rate of 37.23%.


Metro Council took action this week to bring into regulation the transportainment industry. Companies engaged in driving people around downtown on the backs of tractors or in open-air buses must now be permitted by a Metro agency. Insurance must be purchased. Routes must be approved.

Alcohol consumption is not allowed on "unenclosed" party vehicles, but going forward many say the goal is for the vehicles to have alcohol on board if they abide by certain safety rules.

Importantly, the Chamber, Nashville Downtown Partnership, and some in the mayor's office were all grumbling that what ultimately passed was a watered down version of what had been hoped for.


How did we get to this point?

Back in a time long ago, when the economy here was fairly sleepy except among a few revered aristocrats, there was talk about what to do about tourism.

1977 marks a starting point for discussion. That's when the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center was built on the outskirts of the city and the Ryman Auditorium was left to the pigeons. Nearby, on Lower Broadway, peep shows proliferated. Gaylord was the tourism industry's market leader (the Opry and its theme park), followed by the Country Music Hall of Fame, which operated a stone's throw from the roundabout where Musica now stands. Because of the foot traffic pouring in and out of the Hall of Fame, souvenir stores operated up and down Demonbreun to the interstate. Barbara Mandrell Country was the biggest. It sold a lot of ashtrays.

We were getting a helluva lot of tourists back then, but there wasn't a whole lot to make them happy. There were few music clubs. There was no restaurant scene. It was not uncommon to see tourists looking utterly baffled as they set out on foot to find Johnny Cash's house.

But a couple of things happened in the early '90s that turned the dial on tourism. Everyone got their head around this notion: If you're looking for a clean industry to grow an economy, it's tourism. That really made sense here. We had something people wanted to see and hear: country music. And of course we needed to build an infrastructure. But people would come here, spend their dollars, and leave. There would be sales tax revenue. Business revenue. What's not to like?

It wasn't an easy lift. When he was trying to lure the Hard Rock Cafe to Nashville in the early '90s, Convention and Visitors Bureau head Butch Spyridon was distraught as he took company execs around town one night to show them Nashville. The sidewalks were rolled up. One person along for the ride recalls it this way: "Butch was just telling them as we drove around, 'This venue is normally packed. And so is this club. And this restaurant.' Only there were no people around. He had nothing at all to sell. He was just making it up as he went along.' "

Hard Rock came. Butch performed incredibly. Phil Bredesen built a massive venue at 5th and Broadway. Opryland renovated the Ryman. The Hall of Fame moved downtown. The new convention center was built. Presto, we became a destination city.

And all those people coming here? They were of a mind to party down.


Pretty rapidly, we became party central, at a national level.

But why?

Let me submit three reasons.

1. "I love this bar, It's my kind of place," sings Toby Keith, who then goes on to glorify all the usual country music touchstones, including, but not limited to, cowboys, fighters, boozers, hookers, drinking from a Mason jar, short skirts and trucks.

Alcohol and partying, though, may be the dominant touchstone today in country music. Shots. Beer. Whisky. Hangovers. Benders. All that is rowdy and bawdy and uncontrollable.

"A lot of these country artists have set the ethos," says former Nashville mayor Megan Barry, who has watched with amazement the downtown partying explosion for years now.

Our tourism base may include buttoned up conventioneers staying at the Thompson, but the most visible tourists are the ones in new cowboy hats chugging a PBR on a downtown sidewalk. They have heard the songs. And they have come here to live out the songs.

This hard-partying, redneck-and-proud-of-it country music art form has been like a free advertisement for Nashville and its tourism scene. And it's live and in color and on full display right now in downtown.

2. When people really began to pour in here, they were met by a city happy to have them, accept their money, and put nothing in their way to stop them. The average tourist found a playground with no rules, little oversight, no planning for the onslaught, and a lack of transportation and pedestrian infrastructure. Soon, we were having to erect crude barricades between the sidewalks and Lower Broad, just to keep people from being run-over. In all of this, COVID was almost an afterthought—it was our governor who showed up on Lower Broad, mask-less, encouraging visitors to come!

And so the drinking games proliferated with little or no oversight or regulation or planning.

3. The bachelorette phenomenon played an enormously important role in lighting up the city's profile on the national tourism horizon. In conversations with several tourism industry officials, it's difficult to determine exactly why on earth we became the bachelorette magnet that we have become, but most agree that Nashville got on the scorecard because people saw it as a safe and fun and entertaining destination, sort of a tame Vegas.

And as the bachelorettes came, so then came the opposite sex. These same tourism officials say that the women in matching t-shirts drew groups of men, a lesser known fact, but which is only to be expected. The party grew.


Clearly, we overshot. Clearly, our city leadership (planners, transportation officials, bar and restaurant regulators, public works and infrastructure engineers, the mayor, the Council, the Convention & Visitors Bureau) was so focused on fulfilling the mantra—let's go big on tourism—that they failed to consider what happened if we really, really succeeded.

That happens in business a lot, and what normally then occurs is reinvestments are made to keep up with all the success. Pivots are made. The product is improved.

If that does not happen, if reinvestment does not happen, then the value of the company declines, leading to an erosion in performance and quite often changes in executive leadership. It is astonishing that as great as Nashville is at so many things, it has yet to understand that growth requires investment, regulation, management, oversight, planning, and more. To many, parts of downtown are simply broken and uninhabitable, in large measure because of roaming herds of drunks. Which is too bad, because it was all avoidable.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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