Just recently, the Nashville Business Journal ran an article explaining why Nashville did not make the Forbes 20 Coolest Cities list. What? Not Nashville! The city that has been on every 'top' list possible in the last several years. So what gives? Well the city scored low on diversity, art and culture. Surprised? Many people were not. Nashville has made great strides in art and culture, but judging by Forbes, we've still got some ways to go. There is a glimmer of hope however. The Nashville Culture Fest may just find us a seat at the cool kids' table with Washington D.C., Austin, and Seattle among others.

What is Culture Fest?

The Nashville Culture Fest is a five-day multidisciplinary arts experience presented by the Artspiration Group. Culture Fest invited Nashville and the region to explore, examine and engage in the art and culture of the African Diaspora through music, theater, dance, film, visual arts, literature, humanities and children’s educational programming. The vision of the festival was to be the creative spark that ignites the community; and ignite the community it did. The festival provided content that made Nashvillians think, feel, and act on the ideas presented.

The Culture Fest started on Wednesday August 27, 2014 with a Caribbean inspired theme and wrapped on Saturday August 31st with a moving tribute to Miles Davis. For an entire week Culture Fest immersed festival goers in music, poetry, jazz, and visual arts. Some events were free while the more high-profile concerts were $25. Nationally known artists worked alongside local Nashville artists. In all, Culture Fest was unlike any other experience I've had in Nashville. Organizers say that Culture Fest will be back bigger and better next year, and I can’t wait.

Despite the incredible highs, there were some unfortunate lows - mostly due to the lack of attendance at some of the higher profile events. While some events were appropriate for a smaller crowd - a small group of 11 was perfect for the writer’s workshop with resident poet Jessica Care Moore - other events required the energy of a large crowd that just did not show. There were several ideas as to what caused the low turnout (e.g. promotion, ticket prices, unfamiliarity). Whatever it was, festival organizers took note and expect to work out the kinks for next year. Thank goodness, because Nashville needs Culture Fest to occur for years to come – and here’s why:

1. Nashville is uncool...

Don't blame me, blame Forbes. Nashville did not make the Forbes list of 20 Coolest Cities. Nashville was in the lower half of the ranking because the city scored low in diversity, and even more telling, in art and culture. Art and culture is what makes a city cool to reside and visit. A healthy art and culture scene also attracts artists and creatives to the city. Artists help activate neighborhoods and create a sense of place. This unique energy increases quality of life and enables residents to find their unique place in the community.

2.The content…was…awesome.

As far as festivals go, Nashville is making some progress - i.e. long running festivals like the Tomato Fest, African Street Festival, Oktober Fest, and Hispanic Family Festival. These festivals offer entertainment - food, music, and community resources. The Culture Fest however, found the sweet spot between entertainment and educational content that made you think. But not so fast, the Tomato Festival and others have their place; which brings me to my next point...

3. More Nashville festivals = more Nashville fun.

This tweet from Nashville Mayoral Candidate Jeremy D. Kane says it all:

https://twitter.com/Jeremydkane/status/505821729340788736

On the Saturday of Culture Fest, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition hosted the InterNASHional Food Crawl, a fun and inexpensive event. Families were able to hop from family friendly and free events at Culture Fest and attend the food crawl. Festivals and events that offer cultural options add to the quality of life for its residents. So we need more of them...keep 'em coming.

So what's the future of the Culture Fest in Nashville?

In order for Culture Fest and others like it to be successful in Nashville, the events need intentional support from city leadership and residents. The success of content rich festivals like Culture Fest could showcase Nashville as a viable place for other large-scale festivals, which are also seen as economic drivers. Cities are looking at festivals as economic drivers that build their urban brand and draw tourists, major brands, and creative artists and makers. Because of this new role, cities are evaluating festivals in a new way. In Chicago, the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs is launching the Great Chicago Fire Festival and is evaluating the festival based on:

How (well) does this stimulate the imagination of young people? How has it ignited new interest in Chicago history? How does it stimulate other artists to think about how they can program or activate the river in their own unique ways?

I believe Nashville should also be intentional in cultivating festivals that reach ALL of its residents - especially as Nashville continues to become a more diverse city.

   

Culture Fest attracted diverse audiences, and included programming for children and families. Photo Credit: Nashville Culture Fest

The Cool Factor

I have become a  supporter of culture and the arts. I believe that exposure to art and culture inspires, educates, and allows us to appreciate our neighbors' backgrounds and experiences.  I applaud the organizers of the Culture Fest for taking a chance on Nashville. You saw past the Forbes list and let us sit at the cool kids' table, and for that we're thankful.

Culture Fest - Welcome to Nashville! Photo Credit: Nashville Culture Fest

 

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Authortifinie capehart

On a random Thursday night, my husband and I decided to try a new spot that a family member recommended. In the neighborhood called Cleveland Park on the east side of Nashville, the restaurant called The Pharmacy, has been serving up great hamburgers for the past several years.  As we walked through the door past a waiting crowd, my husband commented that in the late nineties we wouldn’t be just casually walking around in this part of East Nashville. Since that time however, this corner of Cleveland Street and McFerrin Avenue and the neighborhoods around it have undergone significant change. I have to believe that the two restaurants, The Pharmacy and its sister restaurant The Holland House, had a little bit to do with that. Image

In neighborhoods across the country, small coffee houses and local restaurants boasting ‘local food’, are creating momentum in up-and-coming neighborhoods. As I’m writing this article I sit in Portland Brew in East Nashville, the cornerstone of a growing neighborhood center that includes a local Mexican restaurant, a vegetarian spot called the Wild Cow, and growing residential development; and it’s not just an urban thing – its also happening in suburbia.

In the community of Antioch, a suburb 15 minutes southeast of downtown Nashville, sits a local restaurant called 360 Burger. Opened during a time when the regional mall and other big box retailers were going out of business, the restaurant was a sign of hope for a community hard hit by the recession. Across the way in the defunct regional mall, new mall owners began advertising new food court selections from local international food vendors before new retailers, hoping that food would be the natural attractor for new customers.

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So the question is, in revitalization strategies should local food be the common thread?

I think so.

Even in the worst parts of a city where disinvestment is wide spread, it’s often the local restaurants that stick around. They stay in business by serving the people that had to remain, and the people who travel back to a dissolving area for some ‘food nostalgia’ – especially if the food is exceptionally good.  So how do we include food in the revitalization strategy – here’s what I think:

Urban planners and city officials should work with local restaurateurs to identify areas where potential restaurants could open and target those areas for revitalization strategies answering questions like - Where is there potential for foot traffic? Can vacant retail spaces be outfitted for new restaurant space? Once those areas are identified, traditional housing strategies (infill and affordable housing) should be focused in those areas.  Urban planners and city officials should work with food entrepreneurs to develop appropriate incentives and fast track approval processes that would assist restaurateurs with a speedy opening.

Similar to the food truck movement, where food entrepreneurs can test new and fun concepts without the risk of a brick and mortar location, a “mobile test kitchen” program should be created to test food concepts in different neighborhoods. This way, restaurateurs can test the market before making large financial risks. Similar to this idea, local chefs are testing out concepts at local farmers' markets and through local non-profits. One such program and test kitchen is operating at Casa Azafran, a community center for Nashville’s growing international community. Similar programs but with business planning and loan assistance may be beneficial in helping a business owner go from testing phase to reality a lot quicker.

Food Truck

Finally revitalizing communities should market existing restaurants online and through social media in order to attract others. If business owners see that there is support of the existing food scene in an area, the perceived risks of opening may be eliminated.

Food always brings people together and I firmly believe that food can also bring communities together.  I encourage urban planners, city officials, and community organizers to really tap the food entrepreneurs in your community to see how we can harness the energy of the local food movement and neighborhood revitalization to effect real change. Food, unlike retail which can and has moved to an online marketplace, will always require a physical location that people can travel to, to see, smell, and consume their food. And its not always about eating, it’s about social interaction, and a sense of community. We would be foolish not to understand the power of this and pay more attention to food’s role in our communities.

Don’t believe me? Well, just chew on that the next time you follow a food review to a 5 star restaurant in a derelict part of town, and wonder ‘why’d they locate here?”. They saw potential and well, the neighborhood will benefit in the long run.

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Local restaurants have been a part of the revitalization scene in Nashville for years. These restaurants opened in neighborhoods at a time when the market was lukewarm because they saw potential. Here’s a few to name:

Germanton Café – Germantown

Marche Artisan Foods – East Nashville

Mafioso’s – 12th Avenue South

Taco Mamacita – Edgehill Village

Watermark and Rusans – The Gulch

The Garden Brunch Café – Jefferson Street

360 Burger – Antioch

SpeakNow!

Food for thought: What’s the food scene like in your city?

 

November 2012 Target announced that it was closing the Antioch Tennessee store in southeast Nashville. After weathering several other retail closings and the closing of the Hickory Hollow Mall – a large regional mall in southeast Nashville - the announcement of Target leaving sent a shock wave through the community.  “Save Our Target” petitions, and news coverage of protest outside of the store commenced just days after the announcement.

Unfortunately Antioch TN – a fast growing suburban community in southeast Nashville -  is experiencing what many other communities across America have experienced – Suburban Retail Decline.

What is Suburban Retail Decline?

Suburban Retail Decline is as an urban planning issue that surfaced in recent decades. As retail and development continued to sprawl or “leap-frog” to newer opportunities and as urban mixed-use centers became the entertainment and shopping experience of choice, older suburban retail areas filled with vacant strip centers and dying malls that were left unnoticed. In addition to these common land use trends, social and economic trends also added fuel to this fire. The recession coupled with changing shopping preferences and the over saturation of suburban retail in some markets, made it difficult for older suburban retail areas to survive.

Cause: Suburban Sprawl and Retail Competition

Suburban sprawl and retail competition contributes to suburban retail decline. Retailers and developers overlook existing infill sites (sites with existing infrastructure in a developed area) to develop in greenfield sites (vacant sites where new infrastructure may be needed) in outlying areas. In the case of Antioch TN, retail development leap-frogged to greenfield sites in outlying counties, and impacted the Hickory Hollow retail area’s primary and secondary trade areas.

Hickory Hollow Mall retail area in Antioch TN, reached a primary trade area of 20 miles and a secondary trade area of 40 miles. Within this trade area lifestyle centers with traditional suburban retailers developed. To put 20 miles into context, this primary trade area reaches Murfreesboro TN – a growing city 20 miles south of Antioch TN. When The Avenue lifestyle center developed in the city of Murfreesboro with similar retailers, this impacted Hickory Hollow Mall’s trade area. Similarly, Providence Market Place, a lifestyle center in the growing city of Mt. Juliet TN roughly 15 miles from Antioch TN, also pulled shoppers from the Hickory Hollow Mall trade area.

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Cause: The Recession and Changing Shopping Habits

Within this decade, the country experienced a recession. During that time homes and jobs were lost, and as a result, many spending habits changed:

  • Shoppers began to spend money on necessities only. For this reason, grocery and discounts stores such as Wal-Mart, Krogers, and the Dollar Tree are doing well in weak or rebounding suburban retail markets.  Specialty retailers (in Antioch, Best Buy and Pier 1 for example) suffered because those items were not considered ‘necessity’. As a result, many large specialty retailers downsized their store format and/or closed under-performing locations.
  • When shoppers did spend money, it was within a new shopping experience; new mixed use neighborhoods, suburban lifestyle centers, and online shopping. Lifestyle centers – outdoor walkable malls – and emerging mixed use neighborhoods were more appealing than the older indoor mall format. In Antioch TN, when the regional mall began to decline, many Antioch residents sacrificed a 20 minute drive to these new areas, while others shopped online.

The Solutions

There are universal and nationally recognized solutions to the suburban retail decline. They include Re-use, Redevelopment, and Re-greening of existing infill sites.

  1. Re-use includes the re-use of vacant big-box suburban retail buildings. This has been successfully implemented in the Antioch community. Nashville State Community College purchased and re-used a former Dillards. The City of Nashville purchased a former JCPenny and is re-using the building as a park and community center. Several churches in the area have also reused big –box facilities, thus revitalizing dead strip centers. 100 Oaks is a local but also national example of the reuse of dying mall for mixed use center, with medical, retail, and entertainment uses.
  2. Redevelopment includes complete redevelopment of a suburban retail site. Local Nashville example includes the Harding Mall. Harding Mall was a small community mall, that was completely razed and redeveloped into a Wal-Mart.  There are some great national redevelopment examples that set a precedent for redevelopment: http://realestate.msn.com/slideshow.aspx?cp-documentid=27670258
  3. Re-greening includes revitalizing large parking lots with green space. The City of Nashville’s Park, Library and Community Center includes reclaiming three acres of the existing suburban parking lot for a park and walking track.

In all of these examples, public – private partnerships were and will remain crucial to the success of revitalization. In many cases, innovation is also a must have implementation component of these strategies; it takes vision and thinking outside of the box to re-purpose a building or retail site in a changing suburban market.

There are also proactive grass-root steps that suburban communities can take to assist in revitalization efforts:

  1. Maintain an online database of available properties. Work with realtors and local governments to catalog, prep (e.g. appropriate zoning, development incentives), and market properties and buildings for re-use or redevelopment.
  2. Conduct a grass-roots economic and demographic survey. Declining retail areas with vacant and underutilized properties often send the message of indifference and lack of spending power. A grass-roots survey may reveal real market needs, and true spending power.  Survey results may be helpful in attracting new retailers and businesses.  Utilize free tools like Survey Monkey, social media, neighborhood networks and canvasing to get the word out.
  3. Launch a grassroots re-branding campaign. Utilize social media to spread a unified message about the community. Develop a business friendly slogan that builds community spirit and pride.
  4. Support existing businesses. Start a “Shop Local” campaign. Show the businesses that have weathered the storm that you care. Use a free web site creation tool and build a website to list all the local businesses. Doing so will make it easy for residents to find, support and sustain those local businesses.
  5. Start a “Business Watch Program”. Similar to a Neighborhood Watch Program, partner with local police officials to monitor the business district. Use a Business Improvement District – a special assessment district – to pay for additional lighting, signage, and landscaping. Doing so will display a unified effort and will help deter crime.

Conclusion

The residents of Antioch TN must know that they are not alone. Google search “dying malls” or visit Deadmalls.com and one would find dozens of suburban communities that are facing similar issues.  But many have recovered and Antioch can recover as well.  The first steps are the implementation of the above ideas. The next step requires more long-term thinking about the future of this suburban retail area. Fortunately for Antioch TN, in 2013 the City of Nashville will begin updating its Comprehensive Plan – the guiding plan for the city and county. In this process, the Antioch community can think about its community’s role in the City/County and the Middle TN Region, over the next 20 – 25 years; this process will be key in setting guidance for moving forward.

As of the writing of this blog, the future of the “Antioch Target” is uncertain; petitions are still being signed, and no official word from Target has been issued.  What is certain is that there is an engaged citizenry that cares about the future of this community. Hopefully, this blog will provide Antioch TN and other suburban communities, insight and ideas on how to proactively move forward.

What do you think? Join the conversation and Speak Now by leaving a comment below.

Tifinie Capehart is an Urban Planner and Community Engagement Strategist. Need ideas about how to engage your neighbors in a specific community issue? Start the conversation with CitySpeak at info@cityspeaknow.com