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Nashville Dems Talk TN Tourism on Metro ‘Jobs Tour’

Democratic lawmakers heard ideas around taxpayer funding to promote Tennessee, a museum focused on African-American music, and the state’s education system during their jobs tour Tuesday in Middle Tennessee.

Tourism got the spotlight in the latest leg of the Tennessee Democrats’ jobs tour Tuesday — from talk of large-scale investments in marketing the state in general down to a specific proposal for an African-American music museum in Nashville.

Rep. Mike Turner of Old Hickory, the Democratic caucus chair, was the only legislator to hit all four spots of the day’s schedule in Nashville. Democrats heard about the attributes of funding for marketing from Gaylord CEO Colin Reed and heard the prospects of a music museum at a roundtable on minority business later in the day.

But at every turn, education also came into the discussion, especially at a morning meeting with the Madison-Rivergate Area Chamber of Commerce.

When the day was over, six Democratic legislators had participated in at least one stop of the tour, and Turner repeatedly said the spirit of the mission was to be bipartisan, noting that Gov. Bill Haslam is having his own meetings with businesses throughout the state.

Other Democrats involved Tuesday were Sen. Douglas Henry, Rep. Brenda Gilmore, Rep. Mike Stewart, Rep. Sherry Jones and Rep. Janis Sontany, all of Nashville.

Reed, head of a state commission on tourism appointed by Haslam, told Turner in a one-on-one meeting at the Gaylord headquarters in Nashville that the state budgets about $6 million in the Department of Tourism to market the state, compared to Gaylord spending about $20 million marketing its own businesses.

“You’ve got Elvis Presley Enterprises doing its own thing. You’ve got Dollywood doing its own thing,” Reed said. “We’ve got the CVBs (convention and visitors bureaus) that take the rooms taxes and do their own thing.

“But the state of Tennessee has very limited resources to market the state.”

Reed told Turner that Tennessee employs about 140,000 people directly related to tourism.

“It is a very big industry for us,” Reed said. “But our percentage share of U.S. tourism bumps along between 1.8 percent to 2 percent of the total tourists that originate in America and come from overseas.”

Reed said Nashville needs more “air lift.”

“The big challenge Tennessee has is the vast majority of those tourists come from the border states because they drive here,” he said, adding that Nashville currently has no airline hubs, whereas Denver, for example, has three.

“What we’ve got to figure out is: How do we make it easy for people outside of the border states to come visit this fabulous state?” Reed said. “If we can do that, we can generate so many more jobs here.”

Reed said Gaylord is spending $800 million in the Denver area and is getting some “wonderful incentives” from the state of Colorado to build there.

Reed said the nation is about to see “an explosion of international travel coming into America” because of the federal Travel Promotion Act, which he said involves about $100 million to market the United States to international tourists.

“How does Tennessee come together, take some of its dollars, co-market Tennessee to the Brazilians, the Europeans, the Chinese that want to come to America?” Reed asked. “These are things we’ve got to figure out.”

Reed told Turner the commission he heads will be going to the leadership in the state House and Senate sometime in the next six months with recommendations about opportunities in tourism. He said Tennessee generates about $14 billion in tourism, generating $1.2 billion in tax receipts. Reed said for every dollar spent on tourism there is an $18-$20 return.

At a discussion on minority business at Swett’s restaurant in Nashville, community leader Francis Guess, who held two cabinet-level positions in the Lamar Alexander administration, was designated to talk about the 2012 legislative agenda.

One of the items he addressed was developing a national museum in Nashville on African-American music. The museum would be at the corner of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Jefferson Street on state property. He called for a dedicated tax source in Nashville to go toward the building.

The project would be a variation on the African-American heritage museum that has been discussed previously. Guess said after the meeting he did not want to speak for the project and referred questions to Perri Owens of Nashville, but she couldn’t be reached Tuesday night.

At the Chamber meeting in Madison, several representatives of the business community complained about the status of schools and voiced concern about the quality of the workforce coming from the state’s education system. There was a lot of support for concentrating on smaller neighborhood schools rather than comprehensive schools.

One stop on the day’s tour was at the Sunset Grill in Nashville, but it essentially became a de facto press conference with no business leaders in attendance.

Turner said some of the things Democrats have learned on their tour and want to act on will not require legislation. The Democrats have already made some legislative proposals from their jobs tour, including a call for $15 million for equipment and expansion of the state’s 27 technology centers.

“We’re going to talk to the governor about this some more and try to come up with some legislation that Democrats and Republicans can agree on,” Turner said. “We’ll probably agree to fight about education again this (next) year. We’ll probably fight over guns in bars and things like that. But hopefully, on jobs, we’ll try to work together to come up with something.”

Haslam has also praised the effectiveness of Tennessee’s technology centers, which have a job placement success rate of about 85 percent. Haslam, however, has generally shied away from legislation pertaining to jobs, saying businesses, not government, create jobs.

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