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:
- Central Indiana Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization1
- White River Regional Opportunity Initiative proposal submitted to the Indiana Economic Development READI program2
- 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
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.
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
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
|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%|
|Life, physical and social sciences||-2,020||1,590||-19%||37%|
|Office and administrative support||-25,290||6,810||-16%||5%|
|Personal care and service||-2,620||3,230||-14%||24%|
|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
|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%|
|Finance and insurance||-432||155||-13%||5%|
|Health care and social assistance||1,136||948||27%||25%|
|Management of companies and enterprises||-37||39||-10%||9%|
|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%|
|Transportation and warehousing||264||145||22%||14%|
|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
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.
- Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization. 2022. Central Indiana Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy. https://d16db69sqbolil.cloudfront.net/mpo-website/downloads/CEDS/Central-Indiana-Comprehensive-Economic-Development-Strategy-CEDS.pdf.
- Indiana Economic Development Corporation. 2021. White River Regional Opportunity Initiative (WR-ROI) – Regional Development Plan. www.iedc.in.gov/docs/default-source/readi/wr-roi-report-vf---pages.pdf?sfvrsn=7cb221d1_7. .
- Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. 2022. Accelerate Indy. https://indychamber.com/accelerate-indy/.
- Feltman, Nate. 2021. “Nate Feltman: Indy needs a vision and a plan to compete in the new economy.” Indianapolis Business Journal, December 3, 2021.www.ibj.com/articles/indy-needs-a-vision-and-a-plan.
- Colombo, Hayleigh. 2018. “Amazon bypasses Indy for massive logistics hub in Tennessee.” Indianapolis Business Journal, November 13, 2018. www.ibj.com/articles/71318-amazon-bypasses-indy-for-massive-logistics-hub-in-tennessee.
- Shuey, Mickey. 2022. “Competition to land sports events, big conventions stiffens as other cities build stadiums.” Indianapolis Business Journal, November 11, 2022. www.ibj.com/articles/competition-to-land-big-events-grows-even-stiffer.
- Donahue, Ryan, Brad McDearman, and Rachel Barker. 2017. Committing to Inclusive Growth: Lessons for Metro Areas from the Inclusive Economic Development Lab. Metropolitan Policy Program, The Brookings Institution.www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/metro_20170927_committing-to-inclusive-growth-iedl-report.pdf.
- Morris, Greg. 2014. “Morris: In Nashville, branding is king.” Indianapolis Business Journal, October 2, 2014. https://www.ibj.com/articles/49801-morris-in-nashville-branding-is-king.
- Benbow, Dana Hunsinger. 2021. “March Madness is payoff of Indy’s 40-year gamble to become sports-hosting juggernaut.” The Herald-Times, Bloomington, March 20, 2021. www.heraldtimesonline.com/story/news/2021/03/20/march-madness-is-payoff-of-indys-40-year-gamble-to-become-a-sports-hosting-juggernau/44036085/.
- Weiss, Brian. 2018. “Indianapolis is America’s sports capital.” Nuvo, January 10, 2018. www.nuvo.net/entertainment/sports/indianapolis-is-americas-sports-capital/article_a0d40b9e-f5b6-11e7-a899-effb419e7d81.html.
- Panek, Sharon D., Frank T. Baumgardner, and Matthew J. McCormick. 2007. “Introducing new measures of the metropolitan economy: Prototype GDP-by-metropolitan-area estimates for 2001-2005.” Survey of Current Business 87(11): 79-114. https://apps.bea.gov/scb/pdf/2007/11%20November/1107_gdpmetro.pdf.
- McLaughlin, Abraham. 1998. “‘Music City’ singing a brighter tune: Nashville draws praise as schools improve and local business thrives.” Christian Science Monitor, July 6, 1998. p. 4.
- Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County. 1996. Bridgestone Arena, Metropolitan Sports Authority. www.nashville.gov/departments/sports-authority/bridgestone-arena.
- McLaughlin, Christian Science Monitor.
- Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County. 1999. Nissan Stadium, Metropolitan Sports Authority.www.nashville.gov/departments/sports-authority/nissan-stadium.
- Davis, Marti. 2003. “$83 million library is Nashville’s pride and joy: As mayor, Bredesen drew fierce criticism for promoting project.” News Sentinel, Knoxville, October 6, 2003. p. A7.
- Smart City Memphis. 2007. “Bill Purcell leaves Nashville’s highest office after showing what an engaged mayor can do.” Smart City Memphis, October 2, 2007. www.smartcitymemphis.com/2007/10/bill-purcell-leaves-nashvilles-highest-office-after-showing-what-an-engaged-mayor-can-do/.
- Nashville Entrepreneur Center. 2023. Our Story. www.ec.co/our-story/.
- Trenkner, Tina. 2006. “Bill Purcell: Mayor,” Governing: The Future of States and Localities. www.governing.com/poy/bill-purcell.html.
- Ordonez, Jennifer. 1999. “As Dell heads to Nashville, suppliers hurry to meet it.” Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition, June 23, 1999. p. S1.
- Dow Jones and Company. 2005. “Nissan Motor Co.: Sales, marketing base to move to Tennessee from California.” Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition, November 11, 2005. p. B4.
- Office of Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. 2013. “UBS to establish shared services center in Nashville.” Newsroom. August 28, 2013. www.tn.gov/former-governor-haslam/news/2013/8/28/ubs-to-establish-shared-services-center-in-nashville.html.
- Fung, Esther. 2018. “Amazon: Investors drawn to runner-up Nashville.” Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition, November 11, 2018. p. B8.
- Mazza, Sandy and Yue Stella Yu. 2021. “Oracle is on its way to Nashville: What to know about the company and its deal with the city.” The Tennessean, Nashville, May 6, 2021. www.tennessean.com/story/news/local/2021/05/05/what-to-know-about-oracle-deal-with-nashville/4954637001/.
- Brown, Laura. 2022. “Looking back at the rushed 1997 closure of Opryland USA.” Nashville Scene, December 29, 2022. www.nashvillescene.com/news/coverstory/looking-back-at-the-rushed-1997-closure-of-opryland-usa/article_5cad5fc4-8215-11ed-a845-1f29bb40b636.html.
- Ivey, Deana. 2015. Branding Nashville as Music City. Presentation at the Social Media Tourism Symposium, New Model for Destination Marketing, Nashville, January 12.
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- Florida, Richard, Karen King, Ross DeVol, and David Shideler. 2022. Heartland of Talent: How Heartland Metropolitans are Changing the Map of Talent in the U.S. Heartland Forward: An Institute for Economic Renewal./heartlandforward.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/HF-Talent-Report_10.pdf.
- Meacham, Jon. 2014. “The South’s red-hot town.” Time, March 7, 2014. https://time.com/13819/the-souths-red-hot-town/.
- St. Louis Federal Reserve. 2023. Civilian Labor Force in Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro, TN (MSA). Federal Reserve Economic Data. https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/NASH947LFN.
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