Recently, I wrote about Mayor John Cooper’s budget cuts, which included a 50 percent reduction in the annual $350,000 economic development grant to the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. Not only do I understand the mayor’s reasoning, I also believe it was a message of monumental proportion. Why pay a chamber $350,000 annually to direct business traffic away from our city — and our county?
The chamber is, by title, an “area” chamber. If Nashville were gaining new businesses and scoring large by landing great companies, it would be perfectly understandable that our neighbors also score some of the businesses. Our neighboring counties use Nashville as a carrot to pitch companies on relocating to their towns — and they should do that. But the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce has the word “Nashville” first, at the front of that title. As president and CEO of the chamber, Ralph Schulz should be concerning himself with bringing business to Nashville first — and if Nashville isn’t a perfect fit, then it would be reasonable to help the prospect consider nearby options. But that is obviously not happening.
I may not be the only one disappointed. I hear some members of the chamber board are also showing signs of discontent.
The chamber membership appears to be down 30 percent, maybe more; I am not sure, because when I looked around on the chamber’s website — and elsewhere on the internet — it was difficult to find any true numbers on membership through the years. They currently advertise an approximate 2,000 members. Just a few years back it was around 3,300. Even if I’m off by a few hundred, the question would remain: Why, in a city that was exploding pre-COVID-19, would our chamber’s membership be going down?
Another issue the chamber board may be having is one related to morale. Multiple sources have mentioned to me that morale is low and turnover is high. Vacant positions are going unfilled. Others have remarked that Nashville Chamber CEO Ralph Schulz is not the easiest person to work for, and that tensions are high. Visualize the work the chamber gets to do each day: reaching out to new businesses, talking to new people — families, musicians, artists or entrepreneurs — all thinking about moving here. How exciting would that be? For the environment to be grim makes little to no sense. While morale may be down due to pressures from the chamber’s CEO, it could also be down due to the compensation structure when compared with the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.
Including benefits, Schulz earns $523,517 annually. The second-highest-paid chamber staffer earns approximately $200,000. After that, salaries hover around $175,000 to $180,000 for other key executives. In comparison, the two top employees one step from the president at NCVC earn approximately $350,000 each, and multiple employees earn between $200,000 and $250,000.
Some are beginning to make comparisons between Schulz’s leadership and that of his predecessor Mike Neal. You may not remember Neal — he didn’t last long. He was a poor leader and subpar in most measurable categories.
Is the chamber board embarrassed by the recent cuts from the mayor’s office? Are they embarrassed that Schulz has put them in this position? In his 13-and-a-half years as chamber president and CEO, the chamber has certainly not “exploded” as the city has. In the years prior to COVID-19, the city’s population and construction growth was dramatic and impressive.
We need that same kind of dynamic growth in our chamber. We need a chamber that will put Nashville and Davidson County first.
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.