NASHVILLE — When this city wanted to clean up downtown more than two decades ago, it looked to honky-tonks to lead the way.
In 1992, Lower Broadway was a sea of pornography shops, peep shows and handsome old buildings sitting vacant.
That’s when Steve Smith bought venerable honky-tonk and country music hangout Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, whose back door was across the alley from Ryman Auditorium. Smith gave the bar critical repairs and restoration and then watched as Tootsie’s helped reform Lower Broadway, along with the city’s convention center and Bridgestone Arena, into a world-renowned tourist district.
Tootsie’s turns 55 Wednesday and celebrates with a star-studded downtown concert featuring country artists Randy Houser, LOCASH, Chase Bryant and Trick Pony.
The bar has been a proving ground for future country stars for generations. But Tootsie’s is crucial to Nashville for another reason — it made buying old buildings to make room for a honky-tonk a lucrative investment.
Smith also owns Rippy’s, Honky Tonk Central and the recently demolished Trail West building, which will make room for a steakhouse.
“Tootsie’s is the mainstay,” said developer Alex Marks, who was with Tower Investments when the company purchased three Lower Broadway buildings in the past decade. “Tootsie’s did it right. They cleaned it up.”
Lower Broadway in the early ’90s was a far cry from the tourist attraction it is today.
These days, 92% of all visitors to Nashville go downtown during their stay, according to Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. But in the early ‘90s, Smith said downtown had only four other bars when he bought the decrepit building made famous by namesake owner Hattie Louise “Tootsie” Bess.
The Grand Ole Opry had moved from Ryman Auditorium in March 1974, and most of the tourists departed with it.
Smith seems an unlikely hero for a downtown business and tourist district. Rough around the edges, he seems as if he would be more at home in a dimly lit dive bar than a corporate boardroom.
“It was pretty slow,” Smith said. “We had Opryland out there running pretty good, and in the daytime we would get some tourists walking around there a little bit.
“At nighttime it would get just a little too dangerous for tourists. There was peep shows and prostitutes, and there was a lot of crime downtown.”
Dave Cooley, who served as a top adviser to then-Mayor Phil Bredesen in the early 1990s, recalled how in the preceding years police would park a patrol car on the sidewalk at dusk and leave the lights flashing until dawn.
“It was significant when Tootsie’s changed hands,” Cooley said.
Smith said it wasn’t a total shot in the dark when he bought the property. He knew Hard Rock Cafe was coming and that the mayor supported a new arena.
Because the neighborhood has no turnstiles, determining the exact number of visitors to the honky-tonk district each year is diffucult. However, Butch Spyridon, Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. president and chief executive, said the honky-tonks were key in positioning and strengthening Nashville as a destination city.
“Other cities have theme parks or beaches. We have the honky-tonks on Lower Broadway to help distinguish Nashville as the global destination it has become,” Spyridon said. “They authentically represent our powerful brand and — with no cover charge — they enhance our value proposition as a destination as well. Tootsie’s leads the way, but all the honky-tonks are invaluable to our current and future success.”
Smith touts the bar for its musical legacy. It remains a venue where future stars take the stage and superstars, such as part-time Nashville resident Kid Rock, stop to hang out, Smith said.
“Kris Kristofferson hung out there,” Smith said. “Harlan Howard was a great guy and used to hang out there all the time. Willie Nelson, of course.
“Sheryl Crow has been through there. Trick Pony got started in Tootsie’s. Randy Houser. Lee Brice, just to name a few, Jamey Johnson. Montgomery Gentry, I could go on and on,” he said.
About 70 bands are in the rotation to play at Tootsie’s, Honky Tonk Central and Rippy’s, the venues’ entertainment director John Taylor said.
Tootsie’s was a proving ground for rising country star Tyler Farr, who said he learned the art of entertaining, not just playing music, while taking the stage there.
“It was the foundation on which I began my career in country music, still a place that still holds the roots,” Farr said.
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