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Tennessee officials struggle to keep up with ‘over-tourism’ issues

Tennessee officials struggle to keep up with 'over-tourism' issues

FINANCIAL NEWS

Tennessee officials struggle to keep up with ‘over-tourism’ issues

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Longtime Nashville resident Shawn Ryan used to joke with out-of-town friends about downtown Nashville’s rowdy tourism scene: the party buses, pedal taverns and seemingly endless stream of bachelorettes.But since 2019, she’s found it harder to laugh.Multiple party vehicles pass in front of her Union Street apartment each day, music blaring so loud that co-workers can hear it on Ryan’s work-from-home conference calls. At her employer’s downtown corporate office, “it’s become embarrassing” for visiting executives, she said.”I just look at some of these things and think, if we don’t get a handle on it, that we are going to become such a joke,” Ryan said.People cross Broadway street in Nashville, Tenn., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.
Andrew Nelles / The TennesseanRyan worked at Hume-Fogg high School in 2013 when a student was hit and killed in a crosswalk by a turning tractor-trailer. She fears someone will step out into one of downtown’s relatively narrow, traffic-choked streets into the path of a vehicle, and loud music will drown out any shouted warnings.Nashville’s entertainment district is at a critical crossroads, according to those responsible for its growth over the last decade.This summer, leisure tourists and partygoers flocked to Lower Broadway, at times surpassing 2019 tourism levels. But the business and convention traffic crucial to the industry’s long-term survival has yet to bounce back from coronavirus shutdowns, and some say the party is getting out of hand.What a Friday night on Lower Broadway looks likeCassandra Stephenson, Nashville TennesseanDozens of videos posted to social media over the last three months show drunken misadventures on Lower Broadway. In one video, a woman crouches on the sidewalk to urinate. In another, a man stands in the roadway, pretending to play the drums on a female party bus passenger’s mostly bare buttocks. One video shows a man doing a backflip off a platform inside a bar and then losing consciousness on the floor.The city’s tourism leaders, government officials, business owners and residents fear the raucous revelry has reached the point of tarnishing Nashville’s reputation, potentially repulsing the business and convention traffic that sustains the hospitality industry through slower weekdays and winter months.”This has made us the most vulnerable we have ever been in terms of sustaining our success,” said Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. President and CEO Butch Spyridon, who has helped steer the city’s tourism industry for the last 25 years. “And it’s not just the (entertainment) vehicles. It is safety, it is trash, it is homeless (individuals) … There hasn’t been a more important thing since we debated the Music City Center, and this has greater implications.”Copy textCopy this quote’s textThe quote has been copied
Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. President and CEO Butch SpryidonThis has made us the most vulnerable we have ever been in terms of sustaining our success.Emergency Medical Services responded to 64% more medical calls in the entertainment district this year compared to 2019, according to EMS Deputy Director Robert McAlister. Most calls are alcohol-related: overdose by intoxication, assaults and falls. Metro Nashville police now staff about 50 extra officers in the entertainment district on weekends to respond to increased calls and stem a recent uptick in violent crime, though a Tennessean analysis shows the volume of police reports in 2021 are better characterized as a return to 2019 levels. On nearly every weekend in the past three months, officers shut down traffic on parts of Lower Broadway as the number of pedestrians swelled beyond the sidewalks.After coronavirus shutdowns eased, several new entertainment vehicles appeared on Lower Broadway, and a tourist fell from a party bus in June. These events reignited long-held concerns with alcohol overconsumption, physical safety, traffic congestion and excessive noise. For years, efforts to regulate the increasing number of entertainment vehicles on and around Broadway have been thwarted by superseding state rules.Customers drink on a party bus on Broadway street in Nashville, Tenn., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.
Andrew Nelles / The TennesseanIncreasingly, city officials — including Spyridon — are facing criticism that their push for more tourists, and the revenue they bring to the city, is part of the root cause of what is taking place now on Lower Broadway.Entertainment transportation business associations say they are in favor of “reasonable regulations,” so long as those rules do not put them out of business. But they rebuff the idea that their businesses are the heart of Lower Broadway’s problems. Nashville attorney Jamie Hollin, who represents the Nashville Transportation Association, said the vehicle owners worry they will be driven off the streets due to “a matter of taste.””Just because they’re partying in a way that offends your sensibilities, it doesn’t mean it’s not safe or okay,” Hollin said. “They’re trying to scrub the grit off downtown.”Downtown Nashville’s delicate ecosystem as a place for residents, tourists and business people is teetering, Nashville Mayor John Cooper said.”If Pinnacle Bank is leaving because it’s just too noisy for them to have conference meetings upstairs in the Pinnacle Building, you’ve clearly hit a tipping point,” Cooper said in an interview with The Tennessean, a part of the USA TODAY Network.Pinnacle Financial Partners Chairman Rob McCabe said the company is moving to Nashville Yards because “Pinnacle’s needs have grown.” The company believes “entertainment and business can co-exist” amid these “normal ebbs and flows of development.”Spyridon said business and convention clients have begun to raise concerns. During a recent stay at the Grand Hyatt, international soccer agency FIFA officials asked for rooms facing away from Broadway due to noise, he said.Cooper, Spyridon and other city leaders agree that entertainment vehicle regulation is not a silver bullet for the complex problems that came with downtown’s growth, and say no one wants to put small business owners out of business. Spyridon said he sees regulation as a first step to clearly understanding the magnitude of other issues including trash, traffic, infrastructure, safety and homelessness.Under state law, cities can’t regulate vehicles that carry 14 or more passengers, leaving most large entertainment vehicles unregulated. Metro has no authority to control party vehicles’ entry into the market, and the number on Nashville’s streets has snowballed in recent months. The vehicles typically encourage patrons to bring their own alcohol on board, skirting the licensing requirements for bars.Customers drink on a party bus and a pedal tavern on Broadway in Nashville, Tenn., Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.
Customers drink on a party bus and a pedal tavern on Broadway in Nashville, Tenn., Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.
Customers drink on a party bus and a pedal tavern on Broadway in Nashville, Tenn., Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.
Andrew Nelles / The TennesseanThis month, Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. deactivated the memberships of three open-air entertainment vehicle companies: The Nashville Tractor, Honky Tonk Party Express, and Upstage Party Bus. City-regulated pedal tavern companies and enclosed buses with tours or other entertainment programs were allowed to stay on the agency’s membership rolls.Attributing Nashville’s recent rise in overconsumption incidents to entertainment vehicles is an assumption, Spyridon admitted. But bars have told him they are turning more visibly intoxicated customers away at the door.Officials from EMS say it’s sometimes difficult to determine where patrons were overserved because patients are typically brought outside before first responders arrive. Officials from Nashville’s Beer Board and the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission say they don’t have authority to regulate beverages brought by partygoers themselves.”The biggest difference is the day drinking that has been going on,” Spyridon said.A Metro Council bill recently filed by Council member Freddie O’Connell, who represents downtown, would require permits for vehicles and drivers, route approval and adherence to operation standards. Open containers would be prohibited on open vehicles, and the bill would limit noise allowances.Similar proposed city regulations have failed at least three times in the past.Cooper wants regulations paired with cooperation from the entertainment vehicle industry. That may require state action, and Nashville’s Democratic state lawmakers said they intend to bring legislation forward in 2022 that would give Metro more regulatory authority.Copy textCopy this quote’s textThe quote has been copied
Nashville Mayor John CooperThe importance of Nashville as an engine room for the state, in terms of job growth and prosperity, is very great, and to bring any of that into question with unfavorable national publicity or just unfavorable customer or citizen experience ends up being a problem.Hollin is skeptical the city has legal standing to enforce the safety regulations in O’Connell’s bill without further state action. He said the prohibition of alcohol on a select style of vehicle would not hold up in court. Entertainment vehicle owners voiced opposition to any kind of alcohol ban on their vehicles, saying that would squash the $60-million industry and put up to 350 employees out of work.Another Metro Council bill, proposed by Council member Sean Parker, would bar motor vehicle passengers from having open alcohol containers.Mayor John Cooper talks about downtown Nashville’s party vehiclesJeremiah O. Rhodes, Nashville TennesseanCooper called this legislation “more draconian and not as enforceable long-term as having the industry be very good partners.”Nashville Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ralph Schulz said businesses are seeking balance. “Nobody’s looking to eliminate the vitality of downtown,” he said.Cooper said the party vehicle industry, while highly visible, is a sliver of the city’s $7.5 billion hospitality sector, which includes the renovated airport and numerous high-end hotels. “The importance of Nashville as an engine room for the state, in terms of job growth and prosperity, is very great, and to bring any of that into question with unfavorable national publicity or just unfavorable customer or citizen experience ends up being a problem,” Cooper said.Michael Winters, owner of The Nashville Tractor and president of the Nashville Transportainment Association, said he finds the allegation that party buses are unsafe “ridiculous.”Most buses are outfitted with the same railings used for rooftop bars, he said, and city leaders should be more concerned with crime and safety hazards occurring off of the vehicles.A pedal tavern crosses Broadway street in Nashville, Tenn., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.
Andrew Nelles / The TennesseanThe industry sees about 1.5 million riders per year in Nashville, many of whom are women looking to drink with their friends outside of the crowded bar scene, he said. Rides are booked weeks or months in advance.Many problems, Winters said, come from new vehicles popping up that don’t regulate themselves like established companies like his. In recent weeks, a man charged people to ride in a truck bed outfitted with a plastic liner and filled with water.”We agree there’s a problem. We agree there’s too many vehicles that (maybe) shouldn’t be on the road,” he said. “We are all in agreement that there needs to be some tightening of the system.”Winters said O’Connell’s bill is “way over-reaching” regarding its conditional open container ban, but “85 to 90% of what’s in the current draft is acceptable by most reasonable parties.”According to Winters, businesses generally support regulations including:licensing entertainment vehicles to act as mobile bars, placing overconsumption responsibility on the company and requiring businesses to apply and pay for permits;instituting a fee structure that would fund regulation enforcement;instituting permit requirements that control entry to the Nashville market.Pedestrians pack the sidewalk on Broadway street in Nashville, Tenn., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.
Andrew Nelles / The TennesseanHollin proposed a quiet zone around Hume-Fogg while students are present, prohibiting certain vehicles from executing left-hand turns, instituting insurance requirements and specifying appropriate places to load and unload passengers. But overconsumption, he said, is a “human flaw, not a regulatory flaw.”Three of the biggest honky-tonk and restaurant owners on Lower Broadway — Steve Smith, Barrett Hobbs and Tom Morales — say there’s no easy fix. Homelessness, safety, regulation and infrastructure issues have built up over the past decade as the entertainment district grew, they said.Regarding overconsumption, Smith said security workers at the doors of his establishments turn away people who have already had too much to drink. Hobbs agreed, pointing to the risk of lawsuits for bars that are not properly run.The three men, who among them own Tootsie’s, Honky Tonk Central, Acme Feed & Seed and more, agree that they would like to see entertainment vehicle regulations requiring the businesses to pay “their fair share of permit fees and taxes.” They also stress that the area’s success relies on all travelers, not just weekend tourists.not party city. – Tom Morales, owner of Acme Feed & Seed https://www.tennessean.com/in-depth/news/local/davidson/2021/10/01/tipping-point-leaders-businesses-spar-over-lower-broadways-future/8259896002/”>Copy textCopy this quote’s textThe quote has been copied
Tom Morales, owner of Acme Feed & SeedWe want to return to being Music City, not party city.”The people we want to see are the business travelers return,” Morales said. “We want to return to being Music City, not party city.””You can’t live on Friday and Saturday nights,” Smith said.For the past decade, Nashville has marketed downtown as a beacon for tourism, large companies, and city living. The area is gaining residents and is now home to 15,000 Nashvillians and counting. Its vibrancy attracted global companies including Oracle, Amazon and Alliance-Bernstein and drew in big-name hotels: JW Marriott, Grand Hyatt, Ritz Carlton.While the sharp rebound of tourism following pandemic shutdowns may have contributed to downtown’s issues seeming more acute, these issues are years in the making, Hobbs said.”Everybody’s poured jet fuel on (the idea that) Nashville’s the most fun place to visit, and now that it’s on fire … now there’s a concern,” Hobbs said.Customers drink on a party bus on Broadway in Nashville, Tenn., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.
Andrew Nelles / The TennesseanWinters voiced frustration with Spyridon’s portrayal of party vehicles as unsafe, and his decision to deactivate the membership of Winters’ business and others.”He designed the plan,” Winters said of Spyridon. “Now he’s complaining about his own architecture, his own plan.”Spyridon said the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. is partly responsible for building Nashville into a successful destination, and that came with unintended consequences.The tourism agency, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Partnership, the mayor’s office and other stakeholders have been working to address “a litany of problems” in the downtown entertainment district for the last three years.”The buzzword in the industry is ‘over-tourism’ … and we’re experiencing that,” Spyridon said. “Because we do bear some responsibility for the destination, we feel a responsibility to speak up when it’s not right.”Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. President and CEO Butch SpyridonBecause we do bear some responsibility for the destination, we feel a responsibility to speak up when it’s not right.Honky-tonk owners say infrastructure has lagged behind the entertainment district’s growth; it needs wider sidewalks, more street lights, and more permanent pedestrian barriers.Cooper agreed. “It’s been comparatively recently that you’ve gone from hardware stores then to an essentially vacant Lower Broadway and now to hundreds of thousands of people, so there’s going to be a lag with infrastructure,” he said.Cooper said entertainment vehicles are already violating noise ordinances, and the city “probably should have been tougher sooner,” but hesitated to squelch any tourism revival following the pandemic shutdowns. Entertainment vehicles are not downtown’s biggest long-term problem, he said.”Post-COVID, the opportunistic aspect of that may have just created an unworkable ecosystem, and that’s what governments are for, to create safe and attractive ecosystems for businesses and residents,” Cooper said.Follow Cassandra Stephenson on Twitter: @CStephenson731.Digital production Mel FronczekStories like this are possible because of our subscribers like you. Your support will allow us to continue to produce quality journalism.Stay up to date by signing up for one of our newsletters.Sign upPublished
6:28 pm UTC Oct. 1, 2021
Updated
6:25 pm UTC Oct. 1, 2021


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