Amplifying the City

by Rhett Bentley


Photos courtesy of Mark A. Herndon / Chattanooga Live Music


The revitalization of Chattanooga’s downtown drew a new wave of people interested in everything from trendy restaurants to outdoor attractions. Now, city and community leaders are making a concerted effort to promote music and entertainment as the next crucial component of Chattanooga’s draw.


Once overlooked when compared to such music cities as Memphis – the birthplace of rock n’ roll – and Nashville – the country music capital – Chattanooga is finally getting its due as a musical force of its own. This burgeoning reputation is closely linked to a major push by local officials to increase tourism in Chattanooga by creating entertainment hotspots that appeal to the various tastes of residents and tourists alike.

 

As a whole, tourism in the state of Tennessee is rising rapidly. The second largest of Tennessee’s industries, tourism has a $17.7 billion economic impact, producing $1.5 billion in state and local sales tax revenue yearly, and generating nearly 153,000 jobs. In 2015, the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development announced a significant milestone – 100 million person stays – catapulting Tennessee into the top 10 states in the US for total travel. Those numbers increased another 3.9% the following year.


Trending Toward Tourism
Chattanooga’s tourism draw is already mighty with venues like the Tennessee Aquarium, Rock City, and Ruby Falls.
Add to that the attraction for outdoor enthusiasts due to the city’s proximity to countless climbing destinations and hiking trails. Now, city planners and entrepreneurs are capitalizing on a new opportunity.

Over the last five years, a true community-wide effort has been establishing a serious music scene in the Scenic City. State tourism office, Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau, local foundations, private investors, event organizers, restaurant owners and of course musicians have come together to make a deliberate effort to grow Chattanooga’s live music economy.

Recognizing Potential
According to Bob Doak, president and CEO of the CVB, “Thanks to the wise decisions and vision of the Hamilton County Commission and Mayor Jim Coppinger, we now have a $1 billion tourism industry. Part of the current strategy to grow that to $2 billion involves spreading the word about our rapidly growing live music scene to surrounding markets.” Chattanooga’s seemingly small demographic of local concert-goers is, in reality, five-times the size when you take into consideration its proximity to surrounding cities like Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville, and Birmingham, located, on average, just two hours away.

With this in mind, the CVB hired Mary Howard Ade to promote it. Ade, a Chattanooga native who earned high accolades working for Spin magazine and Cause + Effect Productions in New York City, was named the city’s first Music Marketing Manager in June 2015.

In charge of enticing visitors to check out Chattanooga’s music and entertainment scene, Ade has fully embraced the challenge. “There is a lot of collaborative energy behind this movement,” she says. “We’re beginning to see a demand for music here in our city and it’s exciting.” And with the right venues and lineups, Chattanooga is poised to be a major contender in the music and entertainment world.


Chattanooga’s tourism industry has hit a major stride, increasing 57% in the past decade alone to exceed $1 billion.

There’s a market here that will turn out for music and support music.

 – Monica Kinsey

General Manager, Track 29 and Revelry Room / Operations Manager, Songbirds Guitar Museum


 


Track 29 Fills a Void
Associated almost synonymously with the entertainment renaissance in the city, music advocates Adam and Monica Kinsey recognized a gap in the market. As big fans of live music, they realized Chattanooga’s need for a large, flexible venue, that could hold anywhere from 500 to 1,800 patrons for a show – something other local venues could not do.

In September 2011, the Kinseys opened Track 29 in a large warehouse on the Southside’s Choo Choo campus. By working with contacts from AC Entertainment, a music promotion company based in Knoxville and known for co-producing the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, they endeavored to attract bands to Chattanooga as they traveled between nightlife-heavy cities like Atlanta and Nashville. Quickly they were able to fill up a calendar with popular artists like Chris Stapleton, the Alabama Shakes, Jason Isbell, and Lucinda Williams. They even sold out a 2011 Avett Brothers concert in 27 seconds.

What Monica Kinsey describes as a “selfish” venture, because of the Kinseys’ own love and appreciation for music, has certainly taken off. “There’s a market here that will turn out for music and support music,” she says. “It’s helped put Chattanooga on the map with traveling artists and musicians.” Today, music lovers are privy to a consistently impressive and eclectic lineup of artists at venues all over the city.

The market Kinsey talks about has spilled over into the rest of the Southside in recent years. With restaurants and bars that offer live music – like Clyde’s and Feed Co. Table & Tavern on West Main and Granfalloon, which hosted this year’s “Road to Nightfall” series, on East Main – Main Street has become a pedestrian entertainment district mimicking the style of Beale Street in Memphis and Nashville’s Lower Broad.

Though the Kinseys had a hunch that the Southside would become the destination for nightlife in Chattanooga, they didn’t know how quickly the market would escalate.

 


The Glenn Miller Orchestra’s 1941 big band swing classic “Chattanooga Choo Choo” was America’s first gold record, signifying one million copies sold.


A New Tune for the Choo Choo
Today, Monica Kinsey serves as general manager of Track 29 and the Revelry Room, as well as the Operations Manager for Songbirds Guitar Museum. Adam, son of former Chattanooga Mayor Jon Kinsey, was named president of the Choo Choo in 2015.

Now the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel, the city’s iconic tourist destination, is taking the city’s entertainment scene to the next level. On the National Register of Historic Places, the hotel already receives 700,000 visitors annually and generates millions of dollars in tax revenue. But with the Choo Choo’s 2015 renovation, Adam Kinsey expects engagement to exceed one million visitors per year.

A $20 million renovation gave the south section of the 105-year-old building a major facelift. The space now houses new restaurants like STIR, known for its oysters and artisanal cocktails, and Nashville-transplant Frothy Monkey, which opened in March and is their most successful location to-date.

In late 2015, the 30-year-old Comedy Catch relocated to the Choo Choo. Following a $4 million build out, the Songbirds Guitar Museum opened in March 2016. The 7,500 square foot museum houses more than 550 vintage and rare guitars, with one-third of the collection currently on display and rotating exhibits planned for the future.

The Kinseys even opened a new, more intimate venue just down the street from Track 29 – the Revelry Room. This 500-person venue was established to further build the market for music and musicians in Chattanooga.

“Not long after opening Track 29, we realized that it was difficult to service the local and regional market,” says Monica Kinsey. Track 29 is too large a venue for up-and-coming musicians. “If you have 300 people show up in an 1,800-cap venue, then it still feels empty. That, in turn, feeds the artists’ energy, the crowd’s energy, and their perceptions,” Kinsey explains.

Adam Kinsey estimates that the venues (including Track 29, the Revelry Room, The Comedy Catch, and Songbirds) at the renovated train station will see 400,000 guests annually, in addition to their regular 700,000 visitors.

One of the biggest components of the Choo Choo’s renovation? Revamping 14th street – rebranded as Station Street upon completion – as a more pedestrian-friendly alleyway for patrons of the Choo Choo’s attractions. Many businesses on the Choo Choo campus now open out onto Station Street, creating a more inviting atmosphere, and more are expected in the future. After celebrating the successful revamp at Station Street Fest in March, Adam Kinsey proudly describes the Choo Choo as “coming alive again.”

Doak calls the renovations a vote of confidence for the city’s future. He says of investors, “I can’t think of a better compliment, because they certainly believe in the future of Chattanooga. These are very brilliant people spending tens of millions of dollars, knowing that they will get a return on their investment. They believe in this city.”

Dusting Off the Jewel
Not to be outdone, another pair of historic gems have recently undergone major changes to adapt to the various preferences of visitors and locals. In 2015, the decision was made to merge the Beaux-Arts style Tivoli Theater and capacious Memorial Auditorium under the singular nonprofit entity of the Tivoli Foundation. City officials announced that they would invest $1 million in annual operating costs for the venues, and they would contract AC Entertainment to handle management and bookings of both theaters.

“The Tivoli Foundation was created to take risks and better program the venues,” says Nick Wilkinson, director of development for the Tivoli Foundation.

In addition to Bonnaroo, AC Entertainment organizes Birmingham’s Sloss Music & Arts Festival and books more than a thousand shows per year. Live Nation, a global entertainment giant, recently purchased a controlling share in the company, giving it even more leverage in the industry. Also in the business of theatre management, AC Entertainment is behind the success of venues such as The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina, and the revitalized Tennessee Theater in Knoxville.

The return on investment for the city has already increased significantly. Since transitioning to new management in 2015, the Tivoli Foundation has noticed an 87% increase in gross ticket sales. That’s more than $1.8 million.

Why the sudden uptick in revenue? The mass-appealing show schedule, for one.

Dave Holscher – formerly of the North Charleston Coliseum, the Charleston Performing Arts Center, and the Charleston Area Convention Center in South Carolina – was named general manager of the Memorial Auditorium and Tivoli Theatre in December 2015. Similar to how the Kinseys recognized a void in the live music scene, Holscher found there was an audience in town for Broadway and scheduled five different shows to come to town for two to three performances each. Ticket sales soared and accounted for a significant portion of the increase in revenues for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

The Tivoli Foundation has a record 56 shows scheduled for this year, up from 32 the year before, and Holscher anticipates the schedule to grow even more next year.

In addition to this record growth, diverse and engaging programs at the Tivoli and Memorial Auditorium will continue to bolster the atmosphere and economy of downtown Chattanooga. Wilkinson explains that many patrons dine at downtown area restaurants before attending a show. Some restaurants have even requested the Tivoli and Memorial Auditorium schedules in advance so their staff can be prepared for the influx of guests.

Wilkinson attributes much of the interest in entertainment to a rekindled connection to downtowns. Geographically, the Tivoli is the link between Chattanooga’s waterfront attractions and Southside entertainment, and the Tivoli Foundation is determined to become the catalyst that spurs growth between the two corridors.

When you put your collective energy and talent together, this is what happens.

 


– Bob Doak

President & CEO,
Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau


Community and Talent
Located between the Southside and Waterfront, the Big 9 District is beginning to see changes as well. Bustling with music, this corridor of Martin Luther King Boulevard boasts the Jazzanooga festival each April, jazz, soul, and gospel showcases year-round, and college student favorites like J.J.’s Bohemia and the Camp House that both offer live music on a regular basis. Not only that, but it’s also about to welcome a new music series on the lawn of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

A partnership among the Urban League, the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the CVB, and Jazzanooga has resulted in the acquisition of a highly competitive grant from the Mortiner & Mimi Levitt Foundation. Criteria for the $25,000 matching grant included amplifying community pride, enriching lives through free, live music, and illustrating the importance of vibrant public spaces. Of the 53 cities that applied nationwide, only 15 were awarded the funding.

“When you put your collective energy and talent together, this is what happens,” Doak says.

As a result of the hard work from these institutions, a ten-week Levitt AMP Chattanooga Music Series will bring new music to the historic neighborhood, beginning August 24.


ATC.blurb


The CVB’s Mary Howard Ade describes Chattanooga residents as “tastemakers and trendsetters” who have long been aware of the economic and cultural potential in the downtown area, particularly as a home to a music scene. Throughout the year, downtown reverberates with popular music series like Nightfall, Noon Tunes, Riverfront Nights, and Music Day Chattanooga, which bolster the local economy and the participating artists. The Revelry Room builds a market for up-and-coming bands and is key to nurturing an interest in regional music. The cozy, 500-cap venue is perfect for showcasing emerging talent.

Outside of traditional venues and music series, Mary Howard Ade credits local music advocacy groups with cultivating an interest in music and entertainment. “They’ve helped build networks and platforms for musicians to come together to talk, learn, and showcase,” Ade says.

The nonprofit organization Jazzanooga, for example, has a strong emphasis on music education and offers quality programs in soul, gospel, and R&B. SoundCorps, another newer nonprofit, offers professional development for local musicians – crucial to building a veritable music economy.

This commitment to quality and diverse music programming sets Chattanooga entertainment apart from other cities. “Our music scene is really diverse which I think is an asset for us,” explains Ade. “There’s a wide variety of bluegrass, jazz, soul, rock, country…you’ve got an indie scene, and even a punk scene that’s strong here. There’s something for everybody.”

The best part is that things are just getting started. Chattanooga has the venues, it has the talent, and the relationships, but according to Doak, the music scene “hasn’t reached critical mass.” So prepare for what is soon to be a full-blown renaissance.