We’ve seen Nashville’s recent prosperity cause growing pains, most notably for those who struggle to make ends meet. Unaffordable housing, struggling public education and rising costs of living are growth’s challenging consequences, making things difficult for the everyday Nashvillian.
We are familiar with these challenges, but I am puzzled that in these prosperous times our Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce appears to be showing signs of problems. When the Chamber announced it will move its offices from the very heart of downtown — from its decades-long position on Commerce Street to the trendy new Capitol View development at Charlotte and 11th Avenue — it prompted a deeper dive into how our business leadership organization is doing.
That examination raised some questions.
First, this newly leased space seems to have less square footage than the Chamber’s current offices, though the Chamber’s website lists the same number of employees as it did four years ago.
More concerning is the fact that the Chamber appears to be following in Metro’s footsteps, spending more money than it is taking in — $1.28 million more. The Chamber’s operating costs of $10.87 million exceeded its income of $9.58 million, according to its 2016 IRS tax forms, which were the most recent publicly available. That was a substantial reversal from the previous years: In 2013 the Chamber had a profit of $399,647; in 2014, $365,411; and a substantial $1.59 million in 2015. The 2016 IRS report reflects an abrupt turn with the $1.28 million loss. An organization like the Chamber should not see such wide swings.
During this period, Chamber CEO and President Ralph Schulz has seen a pay raise of more than 7 percent, going from $465,441 in 2014 to the most recently reported figures of $499,221.
We can compare that to the pay of Matt Largen, who is the CEO of Williamson, Inc. He has the double duty of overseeing both the county’s chamber of commerce and its economic development. Largen earns a salary of $211,625. And Williamson County’s successes are being accomplished with an office less than one-third the size of Nashville’s, with Williamson reporting 20 employees compared to Nashville’s 68, according to the IRS-required reports, which were filed in 2017.
I’ve been vocal about the Chamber’s mass transit failures, and I’ve also expressed concern over its heavy-handed approach to Metro Nashville Public Schools, particularly its support of charter-school initiatives. But concerns are heightened when we see that the Chamber’s activities are costing more than they generate, while the leader’s compensation continues to rise. That’s a different problem.
The Chamber’s focus on emphasizing regional growth has been one I’ve also criticized in recent years. I don’t begrudge the success that neighboring counties are seeing, but I think the Chamber’s regional support is helping our surrounding counties more than it helps Nashville. A more Nashville-centric view is required.
We know that our surrounding counties are benefiting greatly from their proximity to Nashville, and they are having great success. Williamson, Inc. reports that the “county’s schools, recreational facilities and housing options are among the best in the nation,” and touts that “12 of the top 25 largest publicly traded companies in the Nashville region call Williamson County home.” (Emphasis mine.)
Those claims are made more pointed when the Williamson, Inc. site says, “We offer the lowest county tax in the Nashville Metropolitan Area, no state income tax and plenty of opportunities to break new ground.
“More than 54 percent of our residents have college degrees and 21 percent are entrepreneurs,” the site continues. “Come see what Williamson County has to offer and why doing business here is just better.”
What is difficult is quantifying Nashville’s role in the region’s growth.
The attractive qualities of the city of Nashville are nearly always a significant factor in a corporate relocation decision, even if the company decides to land in the suburbs. But we should be concerned when our surrounding counties earn the growth and benefits that corporations bring, such as an expanded tax base and more local business opportunities. Certainly, a significant portion of Metro Nashville’s current budget woes result from Nashville spending more to shoulder the costs of regional growth while receiving a relatively less of the benefit.
The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s board includes an admirable collection of blue-chip company leaders, clearly committed to seeing Nashville thrive. We should encourage them to keep their commitment to putting Nashville’s best interests ahead of their personal allegiance to the Chamber’s leadership.
Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.