By almost any city-planning benchmark imaginable, Nolensville is a town on the rise.
As a township settled in 1797, it was a sleepy, unincorporated spot on the map in eastern Williamson County, with its center closer to what is now Smyrna and LaVergne than to Franklin or Brentwood. As a city incorporated in 1996, it is increasingly vibrant and growing. Its elected officials — some of whom serve part time or are volunteers — are meticulously planning the city’s continued expansion. Though tiny — with a footprint of roughly 9 square miles — its population has more than tripled in 16 years, exploding from 1,854 in 1996 to 5,861 in 2010, according to the latest census.
“And since the 2010 census was taken, we have had 290 new residential building permits issued,” Nolensville Mayor Jimmy Alexander said proudly. “That’s because Nolensville is a great place to live.”
To bolster the claim, Alexander points to the city’s property tax rates, which are less than half of any other city in already low-tax Williamson County. This is particularly attractive to budget-minded homebuyers who want their children to attend the best-in-state county schools.
“Williamson County spends about 60 percent of all their funds to keep its schools functioning at the highest levels,” Alexander told The City Paper. “And, on top of that, Nolensville is a very safe place to live, and it’s convenient to anywhere in Nashville.”
Low taxes, good schools, good amenities, pastoral scenery and proximity to larger cities are real estate rocket fuel. The county keeps adding schools within the city’s borders — four in the past six years, with another two planned to open in the next four. Homes are being built by the dozen, many in the $500,000 range — “We offer starter homes, too!” the mayor interjects — and commercial developers seem to be working feverishly to meet the demand.
This sustained growth, according to Alexander, has allowed the city to fund itself as it goes. It had zero debt until it borrowed $4 million to build a new City Hall two years ago. The new building offers an apt then-and-now parallel for the city. Two years ago, the city administrators operated out of a 2,200-square-foot space in a retail strip. The seven-person police department was housed entirely in a 10-by-10-foot room. Public meetings took place at a nearby school for lack of space.
The new building is the only two-story structure on the city’s retail stretch of Nolensville Pike. No longer does the Board of Mayor and Aldermen hold its meetings in a public school; the new City Hall features an auditorium with stadium seating, free WiFi, an overhead video projector, and an expansive dais equipped with comfortable chairs and audio mics.
“It’s nicer than the one in Franklin,” said Alexander, who served on Nashville’s Planning Commission for 42 years before retiring to Nolensville. “It’s even nicer than the one in Brentwood.”
The grounds of the 16,000-square-foot building are attractively landscaped with saplings, seasonal flowers and the greenest of green grass. The mayor, who looks notably thinner today than in the photo that hangs in the lobby, said he has availed himself of the quarter-mile walking trail that is adjacent to the parking lot.
Despite its sustained population expansion — and the moniker of “city,” which it technically is — Nolensville feels very much like a small town. It boasts the only traffic signal for miles in any direction; the light spends much of its time blinking yellow as if to reinforce the message of the city’s leaders and business owners: Slow down, look around: We’re Nolensville, and we’re open for business.
Nolensville Pike bisects the city, and its path is dotted with an eclectic mix of houses, retail developments, and overgrown vacant lots. There are aged structures retrofitted somewhat attractively for use as modern-day retail space, and there are less appealing prefab metal buildings erected before the city enacted strict design standards. There are contemporary strip malls and standalone buildings built under new design codes, each constructed with earth-tone bricks and tasteful beige concrete moldings that give depth to the buildings’ tops. The effect is distinctive and pleasing.
“Have you ever seen a Dollar General store look that nice?” Alexander asked. “The same goes for the Advance Auto Parts.”
As part of the new image-conscious Nolensville, the city also changed its street signs from reflective green and white to more distinctive black placards. It turned down state funds for the city’s lone traffic signal, opting instead to install fluted utility poles painted glossy black to support the signals at the intersection of Nolensville Pike and Clovercroft and Rocky Fork roads. That’s not to say the city opposes accepting state funding altogether, as evidenced by a $620,000 TDOT grant that will fund a pedestrian bridge to span Mill Creek and connect the historic district to the recreational facilities located one block east of Nolensville Pike.
While the customers of Dollar General or Advance or Mama’s Java are more likely to be from the immediate area, at least one Nolensville business is a popular destination for visitors. There’s almost always a line at Martin’s BBQ Joint during the lunchtime rush, and it could very well be the town’s biggest magnet for out-of-towners on weekends, drawing heavily from the greater Nashville area and beyond.
“We’ve been on the Today Show; Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives; the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times,” said Patrick Martin, the restaurant’s owner. “Bar-B-Que is a destination food, so people make the trip.”
Absent from the city are McDonald’s, Walmart and the like; not that some of the locals would mind the addition to the economy — there have long been rumors of a couple of big-box retailers setting up on the city’s northern border that abuts Davidson County.
“There has been talk of bringing in a Home Depot and Target at the Davidson County and Williamson County border,” said Dana Briggs, chair of the city’s Economic Development Committee. “From my perspective, there’s a lot of hearsay.”
With or without big-box anchors, businesses in Nolensville seem to be enjoying the economic upturn that accompanies a growing population.
“There’s a lot going on here, a lot of hoopla,” said Melissa Hall, owner of Mama’s Java coffeehouse on the north end of town.
She and her husband Mark, a firefighter in Franklin, previously lived in Brentwood and Franklin before they bought a five-bedroom home in Nolensville in 2010 to accommodate their three children and her mother, who lives with them.
“I like the conveniences in Brentwood, but I’m glad we’re over here,” she said. “We have neighbors, good schools and necessities, and we’re surrounded by trees and land and hills and farms — it is absolutely gorgeous. Nolensville is like the hub of everything. We’re between Spring Hill, Brentwood and Franklin. We’re right between I-65 and I-24.”
The convenience of being centrally located to well-appointed shopping communities also means being surrounded by competition for Nolensville-based businesses and the tax revenues they might otherwise generate.
“I’ve heard it called the Cool Springs effect,” Briggs said. “People say, ‘Lets go eight miles to Cool Springs,’ rather than, ‘Lets go two miles into Nolensville and get the same stuff.’ We’re trying to change the habits of people who live nearby.”
Along with publicity-minded brochures and websites, the city is fighting the flight of taxable dollars by allowing restaurateurs to offer cocktails, which started three years ago. Officials are also open to the idea of allowing a wine and liquor store within city borders as soon as next year. A so-called package store referendum is on the November ballot, leaving the decision to the voters.
For some, these are signs of progress. For others, not so much.
“We have a good mixture out here,” Alexander said. “The people who have been here for years and years and years scrutinize what we do pretty carefully.”
City property tax rate
(less than half of other
cities in Williamson County)
Apartments or townhomes
Median age (37.2 is national average)
Percentage of residents
with college degree
(27.9 is national average)
Average household size
(2.58 is national average)
Per capita income
($27,334 is national average)
Percentage of population in poverty
(13.82 is national average)