So we beat on, boats against the current, watching the people running for mayor sitting on a stage trying to convince the gathered dozens why they are the best person for the job.
This time, candidates met at the Music City Center to discuss hospitality and tourism at a forum put on by the Greater Nashville Hospitality Association and the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp.
In a race defined in part by city leaders’ recent decision to support the multibillion-dollar construction of a new stadium for the Tennessee Titans, candidates’ views on tourism and hospitality, as presented to that industry’s leaders, ranged from full-throated celebration to qualified criticism blunted by gratitude for tax revenues generated by those gathered.
Candidate Matt Wiltshire, who led economic development efforts under Mayors Karl Dean, Megan Barry and David Briley, applauded the other candidates for praising the industry.
“I listened to people bash tourism in the past several forums,” he said, noting that he was “pleased to hear them here acknowledge the benefits this industry has.”
This wasn’t the only moment of dispute between Wiltshire, a top fundraiser in the race, and others onstage. Asked about support for small businesses over major corporations, Wiltshire touted his work on a small business incentive program when he was in the mayor’s office. A few minutes later, Metro Councilmember Freddie O’Connell said the incentive was “very difficult to use” and that he worked with a business owner “for months” trying to access it. O’Connell, who has represented the downtown entertainment district on the Metro Council for eight years, said he would work as mayor to create more awareness for those programs. State Sen. Jeff Yarbro added that the mayor’s office should have full-time staff working on small business development, while Metro Councilmember Sharon Hurt said economic development should work “bottom up.”
Mostly, candidates sought to balance some level of support for the hospitality and tourism sector with a stated desire to help neighborhoods and the people who live in them.
Hurt called tourism “one of the most concentrated, reliable revenues generated for this city,” and said Metro should continue to invest in the sector. She added that it was important to “make sure … all benefit from growth.” Davidson County Property Assessor Vivian Wilhoite emphasized the importance of making sure the city simultaneously invests in both business and neighborhoods.
Alice Rolli, a Republican strategist and former state official, said it is important to focus on the city’s finances and pledged to not raise taxes as mayor. She also said she “fully support[s] the work that has been done to build out a separate downtown police force.” Rolli also said that Metro should not “choose winners and losers” by offering incentives to hotel developers or, for example, by “putting politics” into the discussion and turning away events like the Republican National Convention.
Retired businessman Jim Gingrich, who helped move financial firm AllianceBernstein to the Fifth + Broadway development, said the city needs to nurture the tourism economy and “determine what tourism 2.0 looks like.” Yarbro and O’Connell offered a seemingly similar viewpoint, contending that the tourism sector should aim at attracting families rather than "blackout drunk bar crawlers and make sure that downtown isn’t such a degenerate den of iniquity that people avoid cultural attractions like the symphony or the Frist." (Wiltshire, among other candidates, also mentioned local residents being “intimidated” by downtown.) Wilhoite added that it was important to address “low-hanging fruit” like putting lights on side streets downtown.
Yarbro, whose Senate colleague and fellow mayoral candidate Heidi Campbell could not attend, tried to strike a balance between acknowledging both the benefits visitor spending brings and frustrations of local residents who see “a lack of projects in their communities.”
“You keep growing, but you’ve got to make sure infrastructure, services and housing are keeping pace so we keep quality of life matching growth,” he said.
Asked about recruitment of large-scale events like a Super Bowl, the candidates generally espoused support. Wilhoite and Hurt said it was important when considering such requests to analyze how it benefits neighborhoods outside of downtown. O’Connell and Yarbro cited the recent Taylor Swift concerts, arguing that the city (and its transit options) should not shut down when big events come to town.
Wiltshire, in this case, declined to offer blanket support.
“I have not made many very specific promises because, having worked with three different administrations, I understand the complexities when you’re sitting in the mayor’s seat,” he said.