Capital-ism

Being the seat of state government has some advantages for Nashville

As Bill Snodgrass peruses the vista from his 27th floor corner office in the William R. Snodgrass State Office Tower, his vantage point provides an overview of what being the state capital means to Nashville.

The marble-clad tower itself is emblematic of state government's ascendance as a dominant force in this city of 570,000. It was built in the 1970s to serve as the headquarters of the company that had been pre-eminent on the Nashville business scene for most of the 20th century, National Life and Accident Insurance. But after National Life was acquired by Houston-based American General, the building's corporate role receded. In 1992, the state acquired it to absorb elements of its ever-expanding work force.

The man in the corner office also symbolizes the state's hegemony in Nashville. At age 79, Snodgrass is now state comptroller emeritus. But for 44 years he served in that pivotal post with an unequaled commitment to state government and conviction that the state knows best. (Schools would be brought under much greater state control if Snodgrass had his way.) As he gazes out his windows at all the trappings of statehood that surround them, he continues to honor the state as much as it's honored him. "I'm one of the few people alive who has a public building named after him," he quips.

To the north, the Davy Crockett Tower and the Andrew Johnson Tower—the state's expansion space of the 1980s—rise up along James Robertson Parkway. It also links to the much adorned 20-acre Bicentennial Mall, in which the state invested $50 million to commemorate its 200th birthday in 1996. A $6.5 million state-funded farmers market stands nearby.

To the east, Snodgrass looks down on the State Capitol and the War Memorial Plaza and Legislative Plaza that adjoin it. Beyond them lie the Cordell Hull, Andrew Jackson, Rachel Jackson, James K. Polk and John Sevier state office buildings. Then there's the Performing Arts Center, which the state built in 1980 for $30 million and which remains the primary venue for the city's symphony, opera and ballet as well as touring Broadway shows and other plays.

"When John Sevier was built in the 1930s, it was supposed to be the end-all-and-be-all. But now there are six other larger state office buildings with another one on the drawing boards to pull in people from leased space," reports State Architect Mike Fitts.

In all, nearly 17,000 state employees work in Nashville, according to the state Department of Personnel. (That's more than half again as many as downtown Knoxville's total work force of 11,000, as estimated by the Metropolitan Planning Commission.) While the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce claims 60,000 downtown workers in total, its president, Mike Rollins, reckons that state government's presence accounts for considerably more of them than just its employees.

"In addition, we've got the offices of all the statewide organizations that have an interest in state government, and then there are all the vendors of goods and services to the state," Rollins enumerates. He doesn't know of any way to quantify how many of all of the above there are. But he offers, as a rule of thumb, that each state job begets two other jobs. However, many of these are spread around the state if not the nation and the world.

Another big advantage of being the state capital from an economic standpoint, Rollins continues, is that, "[t]he state is a stabilizing influence on the economy. Both in terms of employment and purchasing, spending holds up better when the economy is down." One disadvantage he points out: "State facilities don't pay property taxes, and that erodes the local tax base."

Since state employees are mostly commuting nine-to-fivers, they don't appear to be pumping much energy into downtown, economically or otherwise. Indeed, downtown Nashville seems almost as devoid of retail as downtown Knoxville and may even be lagging behind us residentially after taking all of downtown Knoxville's incipient initiatives into account. Nor are bureaucrats perceived to be contributing much to downtown Nashville's nightlife scene along Second Avenue and lower Broadway where visitors, not natives, are believed to be predominant.

Especially when the Legislature is in session, though, being the capital contributes to visitation. With professional lobbyists and amateur activists swarming the halls of Legislative Plaza—and the legislators themselves classifiable as transients—a lot of things start humming. Lyn Lenahan, sales and marketing director at the Hermitage Hotel just across Union Street from the Capitol, estimates that its restaurant business jumps 50 percent when the Legislature's "in" and its catering business even moreso. "We get many, many receptions, mostly by associations and mostly for legislators," Lenahan reports.

The sales director of Nashville's Convention and Visitors Bureau, Anetha Grant, says being the capital is good for convention business on a year-round basis. "Because so many state associations are housed here, we're able to have more day-to-day contact with them when it comes to planning their events," Grant says. "While many of them try to rotate their meetings from east to middle to west, that contact plus our geographic centrality mean we may get them half the time instead of a third." Moreover, relationships at the state level "can often be a springboard to attracting larger national meetings," she continues. Beyond that: "Nashville gets some recognition that harks back to when kids learn the name of state capitals. Meetings are looking for hooks and being the capital gives us history and character that are definitely one of ours."

The long end of the stick?

Bicentennial Mall, the performing arts center and the farmers' market all represent amenities or attractions the state has bestowed on Nashville. So do the Tennessee State Museum and state backing of the bonds that financed Adelphia Stadium. But if Knoxville and other cities were getting comparable, or proportionate, emoluments from the state, then there wouldn't be much basis for complaints that Nashville is getting the long end of the stick by dint of being the capital.

Such is not the case, however. True, the state built the Tennessee Amphitheater that still stands in World's Fair Park as its contribution to the 1982 World's Fair. In the 1990s, the city got on the order of $3 million for its waterfront development project and 99 acres of choice West Knoxville real estate on the grounds of Lakeshore Mental Health Institute for Lakeshore Park. The state also contributed $1 million toward building the Knoxville Museum of Art and lesser sums toward the renovations of the Bijou Theatre and the Customs House, home of the East Tennessee Historical Center. But the sum of all of the above is piddling compared to Nashville's tote. Appeals for state support of the $18 million addition to the historical center that's now underway, as well as the prospective $20 million renovation of the Tennessee Theatre, have so far gone unheeded (albeit understandably in relation to the state's financial crunch).

When confronted with contentions that Knoxville is getting the short end of the stick, state officials, such as Snodgrass, invariably retort by pointing to the huge investment the state has made in the University of Tennessee. But higher education is a basic state responsibility—and not one that the state has been fulfilling worth a hoot as evidenced by Tennessee's ranking next to last among the 50 states in higher education funding.

A former state legislator who just happens to have been the mayor of Knoxville for the past 14 years, Victor Ashe, observes that "[a]ny state capital has an advantage over other cities because the governor lives there and the Legislature meets there. It goes with the territory."

© 2002 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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