Music fest raises Nashville's recovery hopes
Business owners - and buskers - are counting on the CMA Fest five weeks after a devasting flood.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Allen Richards doesn't need a spreadsheet or cash register to tell him how business is going after last month's flood put a damper on downtown tourism.
All the 59-year-old busker has to do is look down into his guitar case, which earlier this week had just two dollar bills and a smattering of change.
"Last year when I would come down here in the daytime, I was seeing $20 an hour," Richards said. "This year I'm lucky if it's $10."
Help is on the way for Richards and the thousands of people and businesses who rely on Music City tourism for a living. Nashville's biggest single tourism draw, the CMA Music Festival, starts Thursday, and the cash registers were ringing already early this week as the population on Broadway began to spike over the weekend in anticipation.
The four-day festival drew more than 50,000 fans a day last year and fed $22 million into the economy. This year appears to be on the verge of better numbers despite the obstacles presented by the flood. Ticket sales and hotel bookings appear to be up about 10 percent.
That's good news to worried business owners who have seen revenues fall off as much 50 percent in the five weeks since floods took out part of downtown Nashville, wiped out the Opryland Resort and the Grand Ole Opry House, and displaced thousands of residents.
CMA Fest has always been important. There was never any question the show would go on despite some of the festival's stage locations taking water. Now, a strong showing is paramount for those who want to stay in the black in the face of steep losses.
"I would say this is like our Christmas," said Dave Simon, general manager of the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. "Christmas is actually kind of slow for us."
A visitor to the record shop a week ago could peruse the stacks all alone. Simon said sales at the two Nashville shops had been down 60 percent, but that will rebound rapidly this week. There were 20 customers in the store Monday afternoon and traffic flow was constant. Simon expects four times more once the festival begins filling the sidewalks in front of the store.
"It will be like Mardi Gras here," he said.
The CMA Fest sports one of its stronger lineups and continues to grow. Long held captive in the city's fairgrounds, the festival has been growing in recent years since it was moved downtown.
There will be stages, booths, autograph signings, and other activities for fans all over the downtown area, with nightly all-star concerts at LP Field, the stadium that is home to the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
Revenues for complementary businesses fluctuate from year to year, but over the last five, the honky tonks, gift shops, restaurants, and specialty stores along Broadway and Painter's Alley have seen a steady rise in receipts.
Steve Smith, owner of Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, said CMA Fest had provided a sales bump that has become indispensable. He expects revenue to be up 15 percent to 20 percent from previous years this week, which will help fill in for the 50 percent in losses since the flood.
"I think we've got a lot of new star power, and I think CMA Fest has really worked hard on making this thing larger than it has been in the past," said Smith, whose popular attraction for tourists and locals alike is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. "When you go back to the day of the fairgrounds, everything was stuck out there. There was motor homes and they had a few booths, a concert over there in the racetrack area. All that has just exploded where we've got the stadium downtown and the Bridgestone Arena is available for the new, modern artist of today."
John Fleming, general manager of the Renaissance Nashville Hotel, said a successful CMA Fest won't just affect the bottom line this week. It's also important for the message it sends.
"There's going to be a lot of people here," Fleming said. "To be able to see Nashville is alive and well and open for business I think will set the tone for the rest of the year."