For the first two days of May in 2010, Nashville, Tenn., a city accustomed to being inundated by tourists, was overrun by 13 inches of rain in 36 hours. The Cumberland River reached 12 feet above flood stage, killing 11 people and ruining landmarks including the Grand Ole Opry House and the Gaylord Opryland Resort. The city suffered more than $2 billion in damage to private property alone.

“The flood galvanized our community in ways that make me proud to be a Nashvillian,” says local architect David Powell, AIA, principal of Hastings Architecture Associates. AIA Middle Tennessee rose to the occasion “to stabilize the neighborhoods by identifying and assisting the most fragile families with the greatest needs”—typically the elderly, disabled, and low-income families, Powell says.

Community spirit is nothing new in Nashville. Consider the W.O. Smith Music School, housed in a rehabbed tire-service center and completed in 2008. The private, nonprofit school has an all-volunteer teaching staff that offers music lessons for 50 cents per session to more than 400 children per week.

It’s fitting that the major catalyst for new construction in Music City is the 1.2 million-square-foot Music City Convention Center. Begun before the flood, it received city-backed revenue bonds funded by room-tax and tax-increment financing. An anchor for downtown, it has spurred mixed-use developments nearby that were slowed by the flood and economic downturn. Some retail space remains vacant, and residential components are being rethought. “The new economy, with more restricted lending, has transformed condominium development into apartment development,” says George Thomas Bauer, AIA, founding partner of local firm Bauer Askew Architecture.

“Nashville has a vibrant, multidisciplined economy with tremendous growth potential as an emerging second-tier city,” says Gary Everton, FAIA, principal of local firm EOA Architects. “It [Nashville] also has strong medical, insurance, and religious institution headquarters and colleges and universities.”

That’s helped keep job and per-capita income growth strong and steady over the past two decades, according to Ralph Schulz, president and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. Per-capita income has increased 28.5 percent over an eight-year period. Issues surrounding transportation and public education nag the city; but with the river back within its banks (and a stronger flood-safety system in place), Music City is aiming again for the top of the charts.

“We understand the constraints of Portland, Ore., and the sprawl of Atlanta, and hope to learn from the lessons of each and plot our own destiny somewhere between,” says Seab Tuck, FAIA, owner and principal of Tuck Hinton Architects. “The mayor always says that our best days are before us, and I believe that wholeheartedly.”