Williamson County’s official website paints a certain picture.
In collage across the top of the page, the county sells itself as a bucolic paradise: A horse stands in a field, the apricot sun setting behind it; the concrete ribbon of the Natchez Trace Parkway unobtrusively spans rolling green hills; an antebellum home stands in stately glory.
To look at the photos, Williamson County is a quiet place — an escape from the bustle of the city. That’s a legend, of course, and when the legend becomes fact, print the legend, as the old proverb says.
The fact is that in the past 30 years, Williamson County has become an engine for Middle Tennessee, a white-collar and retail boom world. There are horse farms and natural beauty and pockets of history, yes, but there are also corporate headquarters, retail behemoths and an unstoppable avalanche of economic power churning just south of Old Hickory Boulevard.
It has raced to be one of the state’s largest counties and its most prosperous — with a median income of $88,316, it’s the nation’s 17th richest county. It is attractive to families and to businesses alike.
Selling it as an easygoing Southern paradise isn’t a mistake — it’s a strategy.
“Companies are still looking for the same thing. They are looking for interstate visibility and access and a good stock of corporate housing,” Matt Largen, Williamson County’s economic and community development director, said. “We have this great rural nature, where they can live and have their homes, and they can work in this commercial zone. … Most places have a place like Cool Springs, but they don’t have these other things. We’ve maintained this great balance.”
And those selling points have often proven a thorn in the side of Davidson County.
With what seems like an endless supply of available open land and a proactive system of recruitment, a reputation for quality education and a motivated workforce, Williamson County is forever in the discussion for the latest corporate relocation, able to offer what Davidson County cannot.
By and large, Williamson’s major advantage is one Nashville can do little about: land and lots of it.
In Davidson County, there are just over 40 parcels left of at least 200 acres — a mid-sized threshold for a major corporate campus or manufacturing site. Because of topography or flood concern, just seven of those would allow large-scale development. (For perspective, 200 acres would fit two LP Field footprints, including parking, or one Dell campus).
Meanwhile, in Williamson County, despite a population and economic explosion, thousands of open acres are still available.
This is the story of an uneasy partnership, a barely contained rivalry and how Williamson County flipped from pastoral Eden to big business paradise.
In the most basic demographic way, Williamson County’s growth is downright meteoric. In 1980, the census counted 58,108 people — roughly the same size as Wilson and Maury counties. It was, like many of the ring counties around Nashville, a mix of bedroom commuters and large family farms. The growth started in earnest in the 1970s: the great emigration from cities to the suburbs across the nation, a phenomenon tagged with the uneasy name “white flight.”
That 1970s population jump was not unique to Williamson County — it was common of all the Nashville-bordering counties and, indeed, similarly situated locales everywhere in America.
But in the mid-’80s, Williamson County benefited from something most of the rest of the country did not. It wasn’t white flight so much as Rust Belt flight.
In the early 1980s, Nissan and Saturn brought auto manufacturing to Middle Tennessee — to Smyrna and Spring Hill, respectively.
With auto manufacturing comes workers and their money.
Situated neatly in the nexus of a Nashville-Smyrna-Spring Hill triangle, Williamson County benefited. By the time the first Saturn rolled off the line in Spring Hill in 1990, Williamson County had added 23,000 people. In the next 20 years, Williamson County added another 100,000.
Just as the automakers moved into Smyrna and Spring Hill, something else happened in a sliver along Interstate 65.
In 1983, Cool Springs happened.
It is a metaphor almost too perfect to be true.
In the 1930s, a small five-and-dime store opened in Pulaski, and by 1960, the store had become successful enough to open the first of its large stores in downtown Nashville.
As suburbs grew and urban shopping gave way to mall shopping, this store — Service Merchandise — became a retail powerhouse: a $4 billion company.
And in 1983, Service Merchandise moved from its downtown headquarters into a 33,000-square-foot building along the interstate in an area that was, at the time, basically the middle of nowhere.
Largely, the move was borne of a need to streamline. Service Merchandise was working out of four different offices in Nashville and wanted to consolidate its operations. So widespread was Service Merchandise’s Music City operation, it took seven years before everything ended up under the same roof in Williamson County.
Just a short jaunt down the interstate, Cool Springs had something Nashville didn’t: lots of land conveniently located next to an off-ramp.
The office market of Williamson County was just starting to get going then, mostly small suite operations along Old Hickory Boulevard in the line-straddling suburb of Brentwood. The economy of Williamson County was flexing between small-bore, largely homegrown light industry and farming. There were no corporate headquarters to speak of pre-Service Merchandise. Any executives in town were making a daily commute, affiliated with companies in the larger neighbor to the north.
But Service Merchandise — ill-fated as the company ended up being, another legacy retailer falling victim to e-commerce — began a movement that ended with the ultimate coup.
In the 25 years after Service Merchandise opened up Cool Springs and Williamson County, the area became a hot relocation spot for businesses on the up. Eventually two dozen Fortune 500 companies would slot local or regional headquarters into shiny office parks and towers in the northern part of Williamson County.
Cool Springs visionary Pat Emery, whose Crescent Properties led the development in the empty fields, calls his success in Williamson County the result of both luck and an “educated guess.”
“What I ended up seeing was a funnel: With Davidson County being the large part of that funnel and Brentwood narrowing down, and the only place it could come out was right across the Franklin-Brentwood line at Moore’s Lane,” he said.
In fact, he said, the seeds for Williamson County’s success were sown long before the antebellum mansions went up in Franklin.
While Sumner and Wilson counties have experienced their own levels of success, the massive corporate growth went south. Emery says it was topography more than anything else that influenced the market forces, friendly geography coupled with a government willing to take a chance. While Service Merchandise opened the door, Nissan would kick it down.
Service Merchandise’s crawl toward irrelevance, the decline and fall of a merchandiser unwilling or unable to keep up with a changing retail map, left Williamson County devoid of a marquee corporate headquarters.
And then Nissan started to scout. The Japanese automaker planned to spin off its American operations into an autonomous company, and with the fresh start would come a fresh home, outside Southern California.
Nissan picked Cool Springs, giving Williamson County the biggest white-collar economic development coup in state history. Nissan brought 1,300 high-end jobs to town and gave Williamson County the kind of marquee operation everybody wants. It was lauded broadly — not just in Williamson County, which had reason to be pleased, but even by Davidson County luminaries who preached a “rising tide raises all boats” sentiment that perhaps obscured the truth: Nashville got beat.
Davidson County was placated somewhat by Nissan’s short-term solution: The company took several floors of the BellSouth (now AT&T) tower downtown while the corporate campus was completed south of the border. Nashville, by all accounts, was in the mix on Nissan — rumored addresses inside Metro were all outside the 440 loop, where the land is easier to package; the Opryland area was reportedly seen as a sexy locale.
Still, the fact that Nissan went south isn’t surprising. Like most corporations with wanderlust, the automaker’s first entree into Middle Tennessee was via the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. A company can deal with the chamber — a private entity with some level of secrecy, which is an impossibility when communicating with a governmental department like an economic and community development (ECD) shop, broadly subject to open-government laws.
The tension is that the chamber’s purpose is to bring employers to “somewhere,” which may not be “right here.”
Once the chamber has convinced a company to come to the region, local ECDs take over in incentivizing the move.
Williamson County can offer, once again, plenty of wide-open real estate, plentiful housing stock and a suburban environment, all within a short-drive of the amenities of a big city. Cool Springs also had the advantage of sitting atop a rough triangle whose other points are at manufacturing plants in Smyrna and Decherd, Tenn. Via I-65 and State Route 840, those plants are a quick trip from Williamson County, short jaunts unhindered by city traffic.
Nissan was wooed with a hulking $197 million incentive package, which included tax-increment financing and $14.8 million in local tax abatement — and that’s in Franklin, a city that hasn’t had a property tax increase in nearly a quarter-century.
It’s unknown what, exactly, Davidson County offered — many of the incentives came from the state and would have been available to Nissan if it moved to Nashville, Cool Springs or, indeed, Crossville — but it couldn’t overcome the go-get-’em attitude of Williamson County, and it certainly couldn’t compete with geography.
Local leaders in Williamson County have been far more open to using major tax abatements than has the Metro Council. Davidson County is more willing to back off when the price gets too high. For example, in 2008, Nashville was the leader in the clubhouse for a Bridgestone R&D facility that would have brought more than 600 jobs to the city. Akron, Ohio, countered Music City’s pitch with a tax-break-laden $68 million package — and Nashville demurred at the lofty price tag.
While the Nashville area as a whole has become a hot spot for corporate relocations, seemingly every big headquarters move goes to the other side of Old Hickory Boulevard. Nashville scored Bridgestone America’s corporate headquarters, but in addition to Nissan, between 2000 and 2010, the neighbor to the south locked down Healthways, Community Health Systems and the Tennessee headquarters for Verizon.
Nashville has made various efforts to compete with the large, open-land model Emery championed in Cool Springs, most recently with the May Town Center project on 500 acres north of downtown in Bells Bend.
The massive $4 billion campus was intended to be Nashville’s answer to the corporate strip of Williamson County, but it never came to fruition, falling apart with concerns from environmentalists, preservationists and skeptics. While access was never in question in Williamson County — the thousands of open acres were bifurcated by the interstate long before Emery ever decided to make his play there — Bells Bend development would have required a bridge across the Cumberland to make it feasible.
It was Nashville’s second big try at creating a corporate campus. The first, MetroCenter, was a slow grower and did not start attracting major employers until Cool Springs already made its biggest moves — and MetroCenter is far easier to access than Bells Bend.
Still, there is a level of partnership between the counties. HCA and its sister companies have made Nashville a health care giant, and both sides of Old Hickory have benefited. Jobs in health care — an industry largely immune to recessionary market forces — are largely well-paying, attracting well-educated and affluent employees. Major players ply their trade on both sides of the county line and in one recent case were willing to move from one side of the street to the other.
LifePoint spent years in Brentwood, growing into the United States’ fourth-largest for-profit hospital operator (seven of the top 15 hospital operators are headquartered in Nashville or Williamson County).
And like Service Merchandise decades before, the company found itself spread across a number of office buildings, especially in Maryland Farms. It went looking for a new home, but didn’t have to look far. In November, the company announced it would move less than three miles, squeezing into Davidson County at Highwoods Properties’ Seven Springs project.
Why? LifePoint pointed to its ability to bring its entire operation under one roof, but there’s no doubt the incentives Metro brought to the table wooed them.
“We’re excited we’re able to do this move in the current economy,” said Diane Huggins, LifePoint spokeswoman. “We know that our company is going to benefit by consolidating all of our employees in one location. We believe Davidson County will benefit too.”
Under the plan, LifePoint gets a 100 percent property tax discount in its first four years, a 60 percent abatement in years five through 11, and a 25 percent cut over the final four years of occupying Seven Springs.
Matt Wiltshire, director of the mayor’s Office of Economic and Community Development, told The City Paper the abatement would range between $6 million and $7 million.
LifePoint is getting what is called a PILOT — payment in lieu of taxes — deal. Metro has used the tool 10 times in its history — half of those coming during the Dean administration. The largest was the deal that wooed Dell in 1999. Since then — except for an ill-fated plan to bring troubled Canadian company IQT downtown — all have been used to bolster companies with an existing presence in Middle Tennessee.
While Williamson County aims for companies looking to relocate entirely — from California in Nissan’s case, for example — Nashville keeps it down home.
Wiltshire admitted that offering LifePoint the incentives to jump the line was better than the other option: the company moving deeper into Williamson County, perhaps to Cool Springs or beyond, to the large-scale Berry Farms development — farther from the city and thus depriving Nashville of some of the ripple benefits.
For their part, LifePoint admits that without the incentives offered by Metro, they’d never have considered going to Seven Springs.
What else does Williamson County have that Metro doesn’t? A well-educated work force, one of the best in the country.
“It starts and ends with talent. Over 50 percent of our workforce has a bachelor’s degree or higher — 52 percent. It’s twice the national average,” Largen said.
While that’s often the opening line — and one that does a lot to attract service-based employers — Largen says there’s no doubt Tennessee’s business environment generally does a lot of good, but the ECD brochure can’t start and end with the “no income tax” and “low cost of living” line.
“I don’t think you want to position yourself as the absolutely lowest place to do business. That’s not the model you want to get into. There’s much more to the equation than being the cheapest place,” he said.
It helps to have friends in high places, too, especially when wooing companies means pinging the state for that extra incentive. In the three decades since the county truly opened up, a seismic shift in Tennessee’s political makeup benefited its most affluent county.
For years, the Volunteer State’s government was dominated by an alliance of urban liberals and farm-and-factory Democrats from rural parts of Middle and West Tennessee. The Republican Party was regional, dominating its traditional East Tennessee enclaves. It was a battle-borne political landscape largely unchanged since the Civil War.
With the South’s shift to the GOP, Tennessee’s power base has — like its affluent population — moved out of the city and off the farm and into the tony suburbs.
The population boom, of course, has bolstered Williamson County’s representation, while Davidson County’s delegation has largely stayed static. Williamson gets ever more seats in the legislature. And where the county used to be a red dot in a sea of blue, the state’s conservative shift means that Davidson is now the outlier, a Democratic outpost surrounded by Republican counties.
With help from the state, Williamson County was able to put together the $200 million deal for Nissan, for example. Package that with the natural decrease in costs the company saw by moving from California, and Williamson County was just what the Pacific Rim auto behemoth was looking for.
The county’s also shown a surprising flexibility in adapting to an always-changing economy.
As the South as a whole changed from a largely farm-based economy in the 20th century, light industry moved in. In the wake of NAFTA and a large off-shoring movement in manufacturing, Williamson County — like many once-rural places — lost blue-collar jobs. Even in recent years, American Greetings, Plastech and Worthington Metals all closed Williamson County factories, costing the county nearly 1,100 jobs — largely workers who won’t transition into Nissan’s front offices.
The county is able to make up those losses in other ways — some auto manufacturing is still there and despite all the big-ticket, high-profile relocations, the county’s biggest employer is a mall. CoolSprings Galleria softens the blow of the loss of lower-income jobs. In an era, and an area, where malls have struggled, the Galleria thrives. In the time since it opened, malls closer to Nashville have collapsed. Bellevue Center is a rump, home now to just a Sears and a dozen ideas of how to redevelop. Hickory Hollow bleeds retailers. A successful reimagining has breathed new life into 100 Oaks, now a medical enclave on Nashville’s south side.
But CoolSprings Galleria is and always was a different animal. Instead of appealing to the comfortably middle-class, it sold a luxury message and aspirational goals. Until the recent rebound of The Mall at Green Hills, CoolSprings was sui generis: plenty of high-end retailers rubbed shoulders with the more familiar legacy stores. And surrounded by, once again, ample available land, it spun off strips of big-box stores and rows of restaurants aimed squarely at the prosperous and upwardly mobile population of Williamson County.
The convenience of e-commerce has made traditional suburban malls buildings in search of a purpose as their target shoppers opt for the cost savings of virtual shopping. But with a demographic less interested in penny-pinching, higher-end malls and lifestyle centers (read: CoolSprings) continue to thrive — if they are located in affluent population centers like Williamson County.
What can Davidson County do?
Emery has a unique perspective. He’s a guy who “got lucky” with Williamson County, but he’s also a guy who predicted success for May Town. Now he’s working to develop office space in The Gulch.
Ultimately, the answer for Nashville may be to stop competing with Williamson County at all. Nashville trying to compete with its neighbor for staid Fortune 500 giants, Emery said, is like “me in Cool Springs trying to get the music industry.”
Without the sheer volume of land, Nashville will have to focus on redevlopment and emphasize its urban qualities as it markets itself to companies.
“It’s different culturally. [Williamson County] is family. If you’ve got kids and your workforce is married, Franklin’s going to be better for you. But if you’re high-tech, high-energy, you’re better going to The Gulch,” he said. “When we made a decision to go into The Gulch, we see it starting to pick up. There’s great neighborhoods [in the area], and there’s opportunities, you just have to look harder.”
Largen says — and admits no one believes him when he does — that the two counties really aren’t competitors.
“The better it is for them, the better it is for us. The better things are for us, the better it is for them. We realize we both complement each other’s products when we are trying to attract companies,” he said. “If you’ve got a company that is looking for a large suburban campus, they are far likelier to choose Williamson County, and that’s why we’ve been so successful. If you’ve got a company that’s looking for downtown, they are looking to Nashville.”
As for large-scale, Cool Springs-style projects, the ship may have sailed for Nashville when the original May Town plan at Bells Bend was scrapped.
Emery backed the Mays and Tony Giarrantana’s play in Bells Bend — “it should have worked,” he said, noting that even Cool Springs’ success, especially at the retail level, came because Franklin was more flexible than Brentwood.
“[Galleria developer] CBL wanted to go to Old Hickory Boulevard,” he said, but Brentwood kiboshed it so the mall developer looked south.
“Franklin said ‘Come on.’ ”
In one year, Franklin’s sales tax collections went from $1 million annually to $1 million monthly.“The rest is history,” he said.