Since its founding, the city of Nashville has constantly reinvented itself — first as a hub for trade, then as a shipping power, and finally as a center for the music, healthcare, and food industries.
Now, Nashville is banking on yet another economic reinvention: unlocking the power of maker spaces, local artisans, and small manufacturers.
On Wednesday, NLC brought experts from across the country to tour Nashville’s thriving small manufacturing sector and meet with entrepreneurs across the city. Led by Mayor Megan Barry’s staff as part of NLC’s Equitable Economic Development Fellowship, the team met with stakeholders and owners at four Nashville locations.
Throughout the tour, one theme was clear: Nashville’s small manufacturing sector is booming. At each site, owners and makers alike showed off a communal spirit, a do-it-yourself attitude, and a Southern flair for design.
As Mayor Barry has discussed, small business is a crucial link in the city’s equity strategy. Research has shown that small manufacturing in Nashville creates four times as many stable jobs as large industry does.
Still, the sector faces challenges to building resilient success — including many of the issues the fellowship will address.
Inside a renovated warehouse built by the Nashville Decatur Railroad in 1924, the flexible maker space Track One houses over twenty local businesses and art galleries. Popular tenants include the recording studio Grind Central Station, performance art incubator Seed Space, handmade jewelry store Freshie & Zero, and Clawson’s Pub and Deli.
Beyond its longtime tenants, Track One also hosts weddings, performance events, farmers’ markets, concerts and art crawls. An ongoing expansion project will open the second floor of the warehouse as an additional maker space and music venue — bringing even more local Nashville culture into the already Southern space.
Above all, Track One remains committed to supporting the arts and creating an affordable, accessible community space. That mission, they say, is especially important as booming rents have priced out many young artists and longtime businesses.
At Houston Station, a creative community of businesses, artists, and startups thrives inside a historic 1800s brick warehouse. Businesses housed inside include Nashville Pilates Studio, Cotten Music Center, and Hemingway’s Bar and Hideaway.
Standing out among the tenants is Refinery Nashville, a popular co-working space that caters to lean, digital-first startups with membership benefits and monthly tech classes. Each month, Refinery also hosts artists-in-residence (current: Frank Carroll and Yoni Veliz) to meet with members and display their work in the space.
In the landscape of the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood, Houston Station has a neighbor that looms large: the historic May Hoisery, a large factory complex currently slated for preservation and mixed-use redevelopment. Though the Hoisery also includes a co-op and once housed the maker space Fort Houston, its planned residential component may be a sign of future change in this once-overlooked industrial area.
Just across the railroad track, Nashville’s Fort Houston offers a similar communal approach to small manufacturing. Focused largely on woodworking, textiles, and handcrafted goods, the space (pictured at top) hosts dozens of independent artisans, each with access to a range of power tools, high-tech equipment, and marketing resources.
Along with its main manufacturing room, Fort Houston also boasts an art gallery and a set of diverse business tenants, including the standout punk label Infinity Cat Records and the office of Councilmember Colby Sledge. Regular art crawls, gallery shows, and community events helps members showcase their work and make connections within the Nashville community.
According to founder Ryan Schemmel, Fort Houston hosts around 60 members at any given time — and has produced over 200 “graduated” businesses that successfully expanded to their own space. Through that approach, Fort Houston acts as a true business incubator, generating stable jobs in manufacturing and contributing to a resilient local economy.
As the final stop on Nashville’s Equitable Economic Development Fellowship tour, Thistle Farms also boasts the biggest global impact. Founded by faith leader Becca Stevens, the combination cafe, store, and factory employs women recovering from homelessness, addiction, sex work, and trafficking to produce gifts and products sold across North America.
Thistle Farms’ social enterprise method has been a runaway success, with support coming from across the Nashville community. Fresh off a recent renovation, its shop and cafe were buzzing with local shoppers and tourists alike — the result of positive press from the national media.
Above all, Thistle Farms stays focused on its mission of service to women in need of support, said CEO Hal Cato. The program has grown from its roots in Magdalene House, a faith-based recovery center, to employ women as full-time employees and managers at competitive salaries.
Building On Momentum
In 2016, Nashville was named a HUD-designated “Promise Zone,” allowing the city to access preference points to leverage federal funding across a number of federal agencies to eliminate poverty in the targeted geographic area of the Zone, which encompasses many of the city’s high-poverty neighborhoods — and includes Track One, Houston Station, and Fort Houston.
For the Equitable Economic Development Fellowship, Mayor Megan Barry and her team identified small manufacturing as a key to lifting up Nashville residents — by providing stable jobs, community services, and locally-driven economic growth. Wednesday’s tour offered a valuable on-the-ground perspective, which will help the city make informed policy recommendations going forward.
Led by staff from the Daniel Rose Center, NLC’s Equitable Economic Development Fellowship provides one year of technical assistance to an annual class of six U.S. cities to help them pursue more equitable and inclusive economic outcomes. Economic mobility, income inequality and racial inequity are critical concerns for mayors across the country.
About the Author: Sam Warlick is the senior content strategist at the National League of Cities. He is a Nashville native and lives in Washington, DC.