By Shelly Robertson Birdsong
Every year for our annual Business in Williamson County special feature, we take time to speak with the Williamson, Inc. President Matt Largen about the status of business and economic development in our county and region and what impact the Chamber of Commerce has had in growth and success in the previous year. Let’s hear what Matt had to say about the year that was 2019 in Williamson County.
YW: What has been the biggest challenge/biggest success for Williamson, Inc. and the Economic Development Division, in 2019?
ML: Williamson, Inc., which includes the chamber of commerce and office of economic development for Williamson County, measures our success by the success of our members and economic development investors. The most notable success for our community this year was the relocation of Mitsubishi Motors to Williamson County, creating over 150 career opportunities for local residents. Mitsubishi currently occupies temporary space in Williamson County and will move to their permanent headquarters in the first quarter of next year. This project, led by our Chief Economic Development Officer Elizabeth McCreary, is special because they are only relocating a handful of people and will fill nearly 75% of the jobs by hiring locally. This is important because our residents who commute to downtown Nashville, for example, will have an opportunity to find a career closer to home, which will cut down on traffic and allow them to spend more time with friends and family. In fact, we hosted their first open house and job fair and had over 400 people attend, and the company collected nearly 300 resumes. Even with a low unemployment rate, it shows that there are people unemployed or under-employed in our community, or people who are tired of making the commute to Nashville every day.
YW: What exciting business news can you report as far as why it’s still a great idea to open a business, relocate a business and be in business in WC?
ML: So far this year, we have scheduled seventy-four ribbon cuttings for businesses and non-profits across our county; far exceeding the pace from the previous years. I think this single statistic speaks to the economic dynamism of Williamson County and sends a clear signal that our community is open for business and embraces small business. It is still a great idea to open a business in Williamson County because our talent base is second to none. People move and stay here for the schools and quality of life, which creates the consumer demand for goods and services and that leads to a healthy business environment. Our low crime rate, lack of state income tax, access to quality healthcare, a range of housing options, tourism assets, and a strong preservation culture, all play a role in making Williamson County a great place for business and residents.
YW: How can members, old, new and prospective, get the most bang for their buck out of joining Williamson, Inc.?
ML: My advice to current and prospective members - is to engage. We take our responsibility to our membership extremely seriously and are always looking for ways we can help our members get connected and maximize their investment. We have a great team who works tirelessly to find customized solutions to each members’ need. We pride ourselves on creating an authentically welcoming environment at our events, and host over 150 meetings and events each year. We have programming for small business specifically through First Friday, for female leaders through Women in Business, for young professionals through our Young Professionals, Leadership YP, and Young Leaders Council, just to name a few.
YW: How do you feel new projects such as multiple hotels and other larger business/retail and housing structures, in the historic district of downtown Franklin, impact the culture, neighborhoods and economy of an already thriving area, that has existing traffic and parking issues? How do you see the good outweighing the bad in the bigger picture? How do we maintain our charm, character and neighborhood feel alongside important commercial growth in these areas?
ML: This is the single most important thing we have to get right, for our current and future generation of Williamson County residents. I am thankful for the great leaders in our community who put preservation first when it wasn’t so easy or trendy. The foresight of people like Mary Pearce, former Executive Director of the Heritage Foundation, allowed for the creation of the vibrant, thriving business district of Cool Springs while also preserving the unique character of Williamson County through her work in downtown Franklin. There are very few communities across America who have a Cool Springs and an historic downtown Franklin, and that did not happen by accident or overnight. There are strict guidelines for development in downtown Franklin, and you could not ask for a better development partner than Harpeth Associates, led by a historian, that built something special with the new Harpeth Square development in downtown Franklin. The high-end, boutique hotel will allow visitors and residents the chance to experience downtown Franklin in a completely new way. People can visit, or schedule a staycation, and never have to get in a car once they arrive in downtown Franklin. Harpeth Square compliments the existing historic look of downtown Franklin and will be a centerpiece to visitors and residents alike for years to come.
YW: What do you attribute low voter turnout in city elections (as well as others), to - and how can more participation be encouraged?
ML: I think there is a low voter turnout in local elections because people are satisfied by the leadership and direction of our community. And the City of Franklin Citizen Survey bears that out with 99% of residents rating Franklin as Excellent/Good as a place to live. We have a great government relations department that regularly informs our membership and the general public on local legislative matters once a month at Columbia State, moderated by Dave Crouch, one of the founders of the unified chamber of commerce. We also partner with local media and groups like Franklin Tomorrow to host candidate debates and forums.
YW: Tell us about Williamson Inc’s partnership with the Heritage Foundation and the new project going on at Franklin Grove Estate and Gardens.
ML: I am incredibly excited by this unique partnership with our local preservation organization, the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County, led by my friend Bari Beasley. She has been great to work with on this project and we are both excited to open the Calvin and Marilyn LeHew Center for Innovation early next year on the campus of Franklin Grove. This center will provide entrepreneurs with low cost dedicated office space for a set period of time. We are using the Alpharetta Tech Center outside of Atlanta, as a model. Since that center opened three years ago, seventy direct high-paying jobs in technology have been created by companies who have “graduated” from their center. We envision a similar model with our center. We will provide our tenants with robust technology, access to a collaborative work environment, and access to services like accounting, marketing, and strategic planning from our partners. The tenants will sign year to year leases until they “graduate” from the center, create jobs, and take office space in Williamson County. The goal of the center in long-term job and career creation for Williamson County.
YW: Talk about the legacy of Brentwood and its celebration of fifty years. What is Brentwood’s contribution to the county and where do you see Brentwood’s future in retail, commercial and housing?
ML: Brentwood is tremendously important to the economic health of Williamson County and the Nashville region. We are proud to operate the Adult and Youth Leadership Programs through the excellent leadership of Lynn Tucker. The program has created hundreds of leaders for Brentwood over the last few decades. Brentwood provides great corporate housing options for our executives and the new Hill Center and City Park developments provide excellent gathering spots for Brentwood residents. Some of our best corporate citizens, like Tractor Supply Company and LBMC, call Brentwood home. Our team had a chance to tour Brentwood Academy recently, and we were all incredibly impressed at the way that school educates its students academically, athletically, and spiritually. Brentwood Academy is a key part of the education ecosystem that makes Williamson County such a great place to live.
YW: Speaking of housing: What is the status of the housing market in Williamson County and do you see a shift in housing prices, availability and growth, or a slowing down of growth in that arena in 2020?
ML: In addition to serving our nearly 1500 members, our scope of work is focused on three priorities: Increasing public education funding, finding and supporting transportation solutions, and creating attainable housing options for our residents. I think housing prices will continue to escalate in Williamson County, which creates challenges for our residents. We are currently working with the City of Franklin to establish a pilot program that will incentivize home builders to build attainable housing, $300,000 and lower, by waiving development fees. We hope this will start to create attainable housing options for our neighbors.
YW: As Williamson Inc. celebrates seven years as the unified county-wide Chamber of Commerce, how do you feel that unification has benefited the county and chamber members? Have there been any negatives or challenges there, difficult to overcome?
ML: We have been blessed by strong leaders with incredible foresight in Williamson County over the last few decades. Our community is built on the foundation of those who came before us. Nearly a decade ago, leaders of our community came together and decided that a single chamber of commerce would serve the business community in the most effective way. They decided that one organization would provide a single path of engagement for our business community in Williamson County. The reason why the chambers unified, helping our members save time and resources, is written in the DNA of Williamson, Inc. We also work hard to make sure what we offer is relevant to our members as they navigate through the new information economy. Our job is to help our members achieve success, on their terms and how they define success.