99 years of economic insights for Indiana

The IBR is a publication of the Indiana Business Research Center at IU's Kelley School of Business.

Executive Editor, Carol O. Rogers
Managing Editor, Brittany L. Hotchkiss

Photos in a side by side comparison with downtown Nashville Tennesse on the left and an aerial view of downtown Indianapolis Monument circle.

Music City and the Circle City: Lessons for regional economic development strategy

Clinical Associate Professor of Business Economics, Indiana University Kelley School of Business

Research Director, Indiana Business Research Center, Indiana University Kelley School of Business

Governor’s Census Liaison and Director, Indiana Business Research Center, Indiana University Kelley School of Business

Indianapolis seeks a regional strategy for economic development, one that leads not lags.

There are multiple strategies and proposals out now seeking traction:

  1. Central Indiana Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization1
  2. White River Regional Opportunity Initiative proposal submitted to the Indiana Economic Development READI program2
  3. Accelerate Indy from the Indy Chamber3

Each of these offer plans for the advancement of the greater Indianapolis metropolitan economy. While such plans offer well-placed insights on traditional issues of talent, commerce, place and housing, the perceived absence of a single, succinct and compelling vision that uniquely differentiates Indianapolis disturbs business leaders.

IBJ media CEO Nate Feltman summarized it well in a high-profile December 2021 Indianapolis Business Journal commentary: “Time is not our friend. Other cities have plans in motion. A vision and a plan are needed now. Let’s pick some priorities and move quickly.”4

Many discussions of a reinvigorated Indianapolis economic strategy generate comparisons with Nashville, Tennessee. In the span of 25 years, a smaller metropolitan area just five hours south that socially and economically lagged Indianapolis has quickly closed the gaps and become a formidable competitor.

In 2018, Amazon bypassed Indianapolis and rewarded Nashville with a supply chain and logistics hub that promised 5,000 new jobs as part of its HQ2 selection process.5 In November 2022, Nashville announced plans to construct an enclosed professional football stadium and make it part of a strategy to steal Indianapolis convention and sporting event business.6 The Indy Chamber semiannually benchmarks Indianapolis against Nashville, including in the current iteration of Accelerate Indy and in a recent Brookings Institution study on inclusive economic development.7 As recently as last summer, the Indy Chamber’s Leadership Exchange took Indianapolis leaders to Nashville to understand the root of Music City’s success.8

Economic success for a metropolitan area requires strategy, leadership and investments that leverage comparative geographic, economic and demographic advantages. In the 1970s, Indianapolis executed a deliberate vision to become a global sports hub.9 The recruitment of six professional sports franchises, headquarters for four high-profile amateur sports associations and a continuous stream of national championship sporting events (such as the Super Bowl and NCAA Final Four) demonstrate the success of that strategy.10

Forty years on, the region’s sports economy remains dynamic, but it is also mature. Nashville’s impressive momentum inspires resurrection of the strategic energy of the 1970s to place Indianapolis on an economic path that leads, rather than lags, other great cities. This study dissects the data to explain Nashville’s ascension and suggest elements of a forward-thinking economic vision for the Indianapolis region.

Nashville surpasses Indianapolis

In order to compare apples to apples, we are looking at the per capita real gross domestic product (PC-RGDP), the per-resident value of all final goods and services produced in a geographic area and measured in constant year 2012 dollars. Dividing the metropolitan area RGDP (U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis) by the population estimate (U.S. Census Bureau) generates a well-established measure of prosperity that can be used to compare annual economic performance between Indianapolis and Nashville (see Figure 1).11

Figure 1: Per capita real GDP, Indianapolis and Nashville metros

Line graph showing per capita real GDP of Indianapolis, IN and Nashville, TN from 2001 to 2021.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Real GDP by metropolitan area

Before the Recession

In 2001, Nashville’s per capita GDP was 82% that of Indianapolis, and it increased only slightly to 84% by 2007. But out of the Great Recession bounded a new Nashville, with a per capita GDP that surpassed Indianapolis in 2015 and exceeded it by 8% in 2021.

During the recession, real economic activity in Nashville fell by 6.6% between 2008 and 2010, as opposed to a 9% drop in Indianapolis. Nashville’s economic activity then grew between 2010 and 2012 while it shrank in Indianapolis. Because of a larger dependence on hospitality and tourism, the pandemic lockdown hit Nashville harder than Indianapolis (a decrease of 5.5% in Nashville as opposed to a decrease of 3.6% in Indianapolis in PC-RGDP between 2019 and 2020), but Nashville enjoyed an impressively larger bounce after the lockdown (an increase of 11.1% versus an increase of 4.4% in PC-RGDP between 2020 and 2021) that solidified its long-term lead over Indianapolis.

A Transformation

Nashville’s transformation between 2007 and 2021 can be traced to bold leadership by two successive mayors in the 1990s and early 2000s. Elected in 1991, Mayor Phil Bredesen engaged the business community to ignite a new vision for downtown and commit the city to bold investments.12 These included $155 million in 1996 for a new arena that eventually housed a National Hockey League expansion team, $206 million in 1998 for new schools, $264 million in 1999 for a new stadium to bring the National Football League team in Houston to Nashville and $83 million in 2001 for a new library.13,14,15,16

Mayor Bill Purcell, Bredesen’s successor, increased annual education funding by $200 million, commenced work with the Chamber of Commerce that launched the Nashville Entrepreneur Center in 2010 and initiated planning for a $455 million replacement of Nashville’s convention center that opened in 2013.17,18,19 Momentum established by Bredesen and Purcell attracted large investments by new multinational companies with no previous presence in Nashville. These included high-profile announcements by Dell Computer in 1999, Nissan in 2005, UBS in 2013, Amazon in 2018 and Oracle in 2021.20,21,22,23,24

Intentional marketing and branding of Nashville complemented public investment in placemaking and education. In 1998, Nashville’s biggest tourist attraction, Opryland, closed and sparked a period of decline in visitors to the city.25 At that time, the tourism market considered Nashville a destination for families and seniors. Perceptions limited the city’s entertainment brand to country music, especially older forms of the genre connected to the Grand Ole Opry.26 Nashville’s corporate community historically eschewed the music business and embraced an identity for the city linked to higher education and industries like health care, insurance and publishing that drove the regional economy. Established business leaders preferred “Athens of the South” over “Country Music USA” as Nashville’s brand.27

Circular red and blue neon sign on a dark brick wall saying Nashville is the Music City

This changed in 2003 when 150 business leaders engaged a several month process to intentionally identify one brand for Nashville. Dialogue convinced former skeptics to adopt an identity that outsiders had already embraced. Music in all forms became Nashville’s brand, “Music City” became Nashville’s brand name and “authentic, unique, friendly and unpretentious” became Nashville’s brand promise.28 Comprehensive work to promote the brand included the production and release of the documentary For the Love of Music: The Story of Nashville, which spotlighted Nashville’s creative energy and emphasized its embrace of all music genres.29

Beyond music, the marketing successfully branded Nashville as a place where entrepreneurial professionals could thrive. Among metropolitan areas with a population of one million or more, Nashville ranked first for percentage growth in college graduates between 2010 and 2019 (8.8% in Nashville versus 4.9% nationwide).30 Through deliberate work, the region leveraged organic cultural and economic advantages to reframe national perceptions of how individuals and businesses could prosper in Nashville.31

Table 1: Job increases and declines by industry sector: 2007 to 2021

Indianapolis Increase/decrease % change Nashville Increase/decrease % change
Health care and social assistance 43,600 43% Professional, scientific and technical services 36,700 97%
Transportation, warehousing, utilities 28,300 52% Transportation, warehousing, utilities 35,300 113%
Professional, scientific, technical services 25,500 55% Health care and social assistance 34,300 36%
Administrative and support services 18,400 25% Financial activities 24,500 50%
Financial activities 9,000 14% Leisure and hospitality 24,100 29%
Educational services 5,400 39% Administrative and support services 23,600 42%
Federal government 2,900 19% Management of companies and enterprises 17,300 175%
Leisure and hospitality 2,500 3% Other services 11,300 36%
Mining, logging, construction 2,400 4% Local government  11,100 17%
State government 2,200 7% Retail trade 10,600 12%
Local government  2,200 3% Educational services 9,800 54%
Other services 2,100 5% Mining, logging, construction 9,100 21%
Non-durable goods manufacturing 1,700 4% Information 5,600 27%
Wholesale trade 600 1% Wholesale trade 4,400 12%
Retail trade 500 0% Federal government 3,100 26%
Management of companies and enterprises -200 -2% State government -400 -1%
Information -4,600 -27% Non-durable goods manufacturing -1,100 -4%
Durable goods manufacturing -10,800 -18% Durable goods manufacturing -2,100 -4%

Note: This data was pulled before annual benchmarking was completed.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Employment Statistics (CES), not seasonally adjusted

Employment and entrepreneurial comparisons

A breakdown in employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics between 2007 and 2021 makes clear a contrast between profound economic transformation in the Nashville metropolitan area and limited economic change in the Indianapolis metropolitan area. Table 1 offers a comparison in employment growth by industry. In 2007, the share of employment in high-income service industries (information; financial activities; professional, scientific and technical services; and management of companies and enterprises) was identical in Nashville and Indianapolis at 15%. Through 2021, this share increased to 19% in Nashville and only to 16% in Indianapolis. The biggest industry contrast was management of companies and enterprises, where employment grew by 175% in Nashville but shrank by 2% in Indianapolis. Similar differences in trajectory are revealed by comparison of employment growth by occupation (Table 2).

Table 2: Employment change by occupation from 2007 to 2021, Indianapolis and Nashville metros

Occupation Increase/Decrease Percent change
Indianapolis Nashville Indianapolis Nashville
Architecture and engineering  -1,060 1,520 -7% 14%
Arts, design, entertainment, sports and media  420 600 4% 5%
Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance  -4,270 1,520 -14% 7%
Business and financial operations  20,590 30,600 52% 107%
Community and social services  3,760 3,410 34% 39%
Computer and mathematical  10,730 12,450 53% 85%
Construction and extraction  -2,630 3,750 -6% 11%
Education, training and library  3,950 6,820 10% 18%
Farming, fishing and forestry  -130 330 -20% 110%
Food preparation and serving related  5,900 12,430 8% 19%
Health care practitioners and technical  20,630 26,290 41% 62%
Health care support  18,100 14,270 95% 87%
Installation, maintenance and repair  2,580 5,020 7% 16%
Legal 1,890 4,000 31% 105%
Life, physical and social sciences  -2,020 1,590 -19% 37%
Management  17,540 27,460 43% 57%
Office and administrative support  -25,290 6,810 -16% 5%
Personal care and service  -2,620 3,230 -14% 24%
Production  -3,780 -3,980 -6% -6%
Protective service  3,060 5,980 16% 38%
Sales and related  -1,520 3,800 -2% 5%
Transportation and material moving  48,730 44,410 59% 63%
Total jobs by occupation 114,560 212,310 13% 28%

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics (OEWS)

Between 2007 and 2021, employment growth in high economic value occupations (management; business and financial operations; computer and mathematical; architecture and engineering; and life, physical and social sciences) was 61% higher in Nashville (73,620 jobs gained) than in Indianapolis (45,780 jobs gained). Except for jobs in production, employment in all occupations in Nashville grew. Comparatively, Indianapolis lost employment in eight categories outside of production, including two in the high economic value group. In Indianapolis, architects and engineers decreased by 7% and those employed in the sciences fell by 19%.

Whether measured according to industries or occupations, Nashville’s rate of total employment growth more than doubled that of Indianapolis, and Nashville’s growth disproportionately occurred in the industries and occupations that generated the highest contribution to regional GDP. In 2007, the total labor force was 882,019 in Nashville and 954,695 in Indianapolis. By 2021, a total labor force of 1,153,935 in Nashville had surpassed the 1,082,052 in Indianapolis.32,33 An increase in the population aged 25 to 44 years in Nashville (a gain of 113,793 people) was a major driver of the larger Nashville labor force by 2021 (Indianapolis gained 62,433 people in that age group).34,35

Entrepreneurial activity and growth in the number of business establishments laid a strong foundation for Nashville’s comparatively rapid expansion in employment. Table 3 paints the contrast between Indianapolis and Nashville in terms of business establishment growth by industry.

Table 3: Business establishments change by industry from 2007 to 2020, Indianapolis and Nashville metros

Industry Increase/Decrease Percent change
Indianapolis Nashville Indianapolis Nashville
Accommodation and food services 664 1,327 19% 46%
Administrative and support services 202 421 9% 21%
Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting 6 7 19% 26%
Arts, entertainment and recreation 121 280 20% 29%
Construction -445 38 -11% 1%
Educational services 89 151 19% 40%
Finance and insurance -432 155 -13% 5%
Health care and social assistance 1,136 948 27% 25%
Information 29 195 4% 21%
Management of companies and enterprises -37 39 -10% 9%
Manufacturing -305 -152 -17% -10%
Mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction 0 7 0% 23%
Other services (except public administration) 131 384 3% 10%
Professional,scientific and technical services 426 603 10% 18%
Real estate and rental and leasing 442 409 22% 23%
Retail trade -523 91 -9% 2%
Transportation and warehousing 264 145 22% 14%
Utilities 11 4 12% 11%
Wholesale trade -365 -172 -14% -8%
Total private business establishments 1,414 4,880 3% 13%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Business Dynamics Statistics (BDS) for metros.

Business creation in Nashville was 345% higher than Indianapolis between 2007 and 2020. In net terms, Nashville added 4,880 business establishments between 2007 and 2020 compared to only 1,414 in Indianapolis. Indianapolis lost a net of 14 businesses in high-income service industries while Nashville added 992. Entrepreneurial retreat in Indianapolis diverged from entrepreneurial advancement in Nashville. The number of employees in establishments less than one year old decreased by 10% in Indianapolis while it jumped 17% in Nashville.36

Lessons for Indianapolis

A comparison of Indianapolis against national averages suggests the same comparable economic inertia that data from Nashville reveals. In 2001, Indianapolis enjoyed relative prosperity. PC-RGDP in metropolitan Indianapolis exceeded the national average by 31%. Between 2001 and 2021, PC-RGDP grew 27% in the United States, but only by 3% in Indianapolis. By 2021, Indianapolis PC-RGDP was only 6% above the national average. Per capita economic growth in Indianapolis was one-ninth that of the nation.37,38,39 Without a well-coordinated regional strategy to leverage economic assets, Indianapolis will fall further behind in an economy where competition continues to intensify.

Nashville’s set of organic advantages has been no larger than that of Indianapolis. Both cities are of similar population and geography. They both have metropolitan government that merges city with county. Neither has a civic architecture that unites the metropolitan government and neighboring counties under one taxing or economic development authority. Regional progress is only achieved through voluntary cooperation and coordination among municipalities.

While Indianapolis enjoyed uplift from sports industry expansion in the 1990s, Nashville struggled with its own lack of identity and strategy. Its downtown lacked vitality, tourism was on the decline and businesses bypassed Nashville for more energetic southern cities, such as Atlanta and Charlotte. Nashville responded to its stagnation with transformational investments in placemaking, marketing and education. Unification of business and government behind one brand for the region, selfless cooperation between communities and bold public leadership drove Nashville’s success. These were the same ingredients behind the sports hub strategy in Indianapolis in the 1970s and 1980s.

Indianapolis has assets to leverage that Nashville does not. A legacy of science and manufacturing form a strong foundation for economic development. Indianapolis generates utility patents at three times the rate of Nashville. Additionally, 30% of the Indianapolis labor force works in high-value economic clusters while only 10% do in Nashville.40 Both of Indiana’s major state universities have a presence in downtown Indianapolis. Nashville has Vanderbilt, but outside of medicine, it is not an active part of Nashville’s regional economic planning. Indianapolis remains comparable to Nashville in terms of the share of the population 25 and older with a Bachelor’s degree (23% in Indianapolis and 25% in Nashville in 2019) and poverty rate (8% in Indianapolis and 7% in Nashville in 2021).41,42

Indianapolis 500 race  showing the crowds in the stands and the Pagota with four airforce fighter jets in the sky flying above the motor speedway track.Just as Nashville used music to attract creative professionals, Indianapolis can do the same with racing. With racing comes competitiveness, invention and innovation – values that are prized by businesses and entrepreneurs. This complements a historical economic legacy of production and engineering that differentiates Indianapolis. This endemic brand can be reinvigorated just as Nashville did for itself in 2003.

The economic future for Indianapolis is at a crossroads, just as it was for Nashville in the 1990s. Nashville learned from the “Amateur Sports Capital of the World,” just as Indianapolis can now learn from “Music City.” Execution of a deliberate strategy, embracement of industries that globally typify the area, investment in large public projects that benefit the region and promotion of a differentiated brand are common parts of both stories. Revitalization of Indianapolis requires a return to the philosophy, process and energy that originally brought central Indiana leaders together in the 1970s. Failure to do so ensures continued deterioration in the competitive standing of the Indianapolis region.


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