From left to right: Eddie George, former college and pro football player and entrepreneur; Robert Frist Jr., CEO, HealthStream, and cofounder, Nashville’s Entrepreneur Center; Jay Turner, managing director, MarketStreet Enterprises; and John Ingram, chairman of the board, Ingraham Industries, and chairman, Ingraham Content Group, speaking at the 2019 ULI Spring Meeting in Nashville.

After his career with the Tennessee Titans was over, NFL star Eddie George was considering moving back to Columbus, Ohio. Looking out over downtown Nashville, he changed his mind.

“There was something in the air telling me not to move—50,000 cranes in the air,” he said while welcoming ULI members to the Spring Meeting in Nashville.

George acknowledged that he was exaggerating, but said he had discovered that Nashville was the place where he wanted to live and pursue his post-NFL career as an entrepreneur, university professor, philanthropist, and Broadway actor. Thousands of others are making the same decision every year, moving to the city at the rate of about 100 people per day, and Nashville is attracting billions of dollars in new investment from Amazon, Bridgestone Americas, and other businesses.

To find out why, George had a question for three people who are playing a leading role in Nashville’s growth:

Robert A. Frist Jr., whose family founded HCA, is cofounder of HealthStream, a health care technology company. He is a founder of the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.

John R. Ingram, chairman of Ingram Content Group and Ingram Industries Inc. He was instrumental in the city’s decision to establish a new Major League Soccer team and to build a new 30,000-seat stadium.

Jay Turner, managing director of MarketStreet Enterprises, where he guides MarketStreet’s strategic revitalization of the Gulch neighborhood, creating one of the most desirable mixed-use neighborhoods in the country. His family founded Dollar General.

George asked them to explain how Nashville has transformed itself into a sustainable, 18-hour city, attracting major business relocations, national sports franchises, and an expanding creative class. “What is Nashville’s greatest quality? What is the secret to the sauce?” George asked.

Turner noted that Nashville has a huge cultural presence because of the popularity of country music, but the city is more than that. And to prove his point, he told a story. “I have to mention a country star,” said Turner. “Eric Church said Nashville has the song. Not just music. We have this creative class. People want to come here. That’s important,” he said.

Nashville has also demonstrated a willingness to invest in its downtown. Nissan Field, where the Titans play; Schermerhorn Symphony Center; Bridgestone Arena, where the National Hockey League’s Predators play; the County Music Hall of Fame and Museum; the 6,800-seat Ascend Amphitheater; and the city’s new 1.2 million-square-foot (111,500 sq m) convention center are all within walking distance of each other.

“We have chefs moving to Nashville from other markets. It’s fun. It’s friendly,” said Turner.

Ingram cited the city’s record of productive public/private partnerships, the most recent of which resulted in Amazon’s announcement of plans to bring 5,000 jobs to its new operations that will be located in the $1 billion Nashville Yards development downtown.

Cities without that sort of cooperation risk failure, he said. “If we don’t follow through, you could look like New York,” which backtracked on its offer of incentives for Amazon’s headquarters, said Ingram.

Nashville approved an incentives package to Amazon in exchange for the 5,000 jobs the company says it will bring downtown for its new operations hub. The tech giant announced in November that it will bring its new hub to Nashville. It was the largest single new jobs announcement in Tennessee’s history. The company plans to invest $230 million and take 1 million square feet (93,000 sq m) of energy-efficient office space. It is expected to generate $1 billion in new tax revenue in the coming decade.

San Diego–based Southwest Value Partners paid $125 million for the site in 2015 and has pursued a vision to create a new gateway to downtown on the nearly 16-acre (6.5 ha) property. 

When complete, the $1 billion Nashville Yards project will stretch between two of the most prominent downtown streets and encompass 4 million square feet (372,000 sq m) of surface space including vertical stories. A 4,000-seat music venue will be at the center of Nashville Yards when it opens in 2021.

Public/private partnerships were essential in bringing Major League Soccer to the city, said Ingram. “There were 11 other cities competing for a team, he noted. “This couldn’t have happened except in a city where the private sector and the public sector work together.”

The challenge, said Frist, is to maintain that civic spirit as the city “grows from a nice small city to an emerging, medium-sized city.” “It’s going to take all of you,” he told the audience.

Turner recalled something his father said years ago, explaining the need for a thriving downtown: “Southern cities are a donut. He wanted Nashville to be a Danish, with the sweetest part in the middle.”