It was February in the middle of a cold spell, and I had just managed to slip on the world’s smallest patch of ice landing squarely upon my tailbone before Ron Sanford and I chatted. It smarted. That’s when I found out that my subject was residing in a far warmer place these days (No, not THAT place...) It was in the low eighties with a light breeze coming off the ocean as Nashville’s legendary event artist Ron Sanford described to me the view from his current location.
Palm trees and pure gorgeousness, per Ron. A three-bedroom condominium on a beach with not an ice patch in sight; an appropriate place for a former “Mister Gay World” to reside as he planned his latest creation. “Ron Sanford Productions” has become the go-to name for event planning in both the straight and LGBTQ+ communities for some time now. At one time, they had to be “split” into two separate entities so straight Nashville could engage the services of an openly LGBTQ+ artist.
Ron chuckled as he told me that story. It is all one united company today, per the man with his toes in the surf. We have come too far to go back to those days. The gentleman on the other side of the phone was ready to spring his latest upcoming creation and I had called him to find out more.
Ron Sanford came out as an openly gay male back in 1981 shortly before taking the stage at The Cabaret, one in a list of Nashville’s gone but never forgotten LGBTQ+ establishments, performing in “male entertainment” as he put it. A spell in Knoxville led to a long stay in Atlanta before moving back to Nashville in 1995.
“I owned clubs in Atlanta for years and was big in the whole club scene, moving back to Nashville to become the general manager at The Connection,” Ron explained. “The Connection” was my era, a hazy image of being carded by the gentleman was forming in my mind - he was pretty cute. He went on to open production companies in Nashville while working diligently for the LGBTQ+ community, serving as co-Chair for the 2000 Nashville Pride Festival.
“It was a different world then,” he continued. “There was no such thing as Obamacare, making it hard to open a business without the threat of lack of health insurance constantly hanging over your head. Back in the day, you really could not be as out in the real world. As an event planner, there were many customers who just could not know if you were gay or anything like that otherwise they might have been forced to not give you any business.”
The news he had to share was that the owners of a building in the next growth area of downtown Nashville have tapped Ron and his company to manage, market and run a new event center called ‘The River’s Edge’ off Davidson Street.
He asked if I was familiar with the neighborhood. “Way too familiar,” was my response to a mutual chuckle. That chunk of Nashville was home to an underground, mostly-male LGBTQ+ scene when I was growing up (the women had their own patch near the dam). This sounded like our community was about to come back home.
Ron told me that they plan to open up as a forty-thousand square foot event complex that could become whatever was needed. “Think of it as a type of Marathon Music Centre or Mercy Lounge atmosphere,” he explained. “The walls are all white and we will have plenty of lighting to be able to change the colors to whatever we need at the push of a button.”
And that’s just the first phase of expansion, according to Ron. The second phase will see the opening of a double ballroom event space, with a dedicated restaurant and lounge open seven days a week.
Ron was excited as he described all this to me. He told me that he had recently worked for a great event planning company that had done similar things, but was ready to pursue a project such as this on his own. “I’m just not a corporate person at heart,” explained the man living on a beach.
He spotted the property and approached the owners a few years back with an offer to rent some space and re-start his old production company inside. It did not come to fruition at first, but both sides kept trying. Two years ago Ron and the owners came together again when each side realized that they had a hidden gem on their hands in a downtown neighborhood that was next in line to boom.
“And we said to each other ‘let’s just play with this...the idea,” Ron related. “Finally, we pushed the button on it, deciding to go ahead with the project last August and it’s been a ride!” Ron said laughing. The idea of opening at the beginning of the year had to be pushed forward into the near future due to Nashville’s growth, Ron explained. The Codes department is swamped and many new projects are having to await their turn in the inspection line.
The facility will be open to all of Nashville, said Ron. But do not worry... Mr. Sanford does remember his roots and promises to always keep the Nashville LGBTQ+ community in mind as the project goes forward.
“When this is all done, we are going to supply the city with a great event space and a great party place,” Ron said. “I come from the party era, and trust me, I know how to help throw a party...from disco to rave, ballroom to square dancing...you will be in the right hands.”
I have no doubt about that whatsoever. Stay tuned.