PHOTO: Kel McDowell, left, Matt Largen, and Mayor Rogers Anderson scan the latest results on election day for the sales tax referendum, February 6, 2018 / Photo by Brooke Wanser
By BROOKE WANSER
On February 6, 66 percent of voters passed a county sales tax increase to fund the construction of new schools.
Behind the educational campaign surrounding the election was Williamson Inc., the county’s chamber of commerce, which advocates for strong county schools as one of their numerous focal points.
“It is our single biggest economic asset,” Matt Largen, the president and chief executive officer of Williamson Inc., said.
Largen comes from a family of educators, so his interest in the field, he said, comes naturally. His grandmother was one of the first women to graduate from college in “the foothills of Virginia,” and his wife, mother and aunt have all been teachers.
Largen said there has been some type of chamber of commerce in the county since the formation of Franklin as a city in 1799. The road leading to where Franklin is today, however, has been circuitous.
Before Williamson Inc. was formed in 2013, there were three different chambers of commerce in the community. Each functioned to provide businesses with a network of peers.
The three original chambers were Brentwood, Cool Springs, and Williamson-Franklin.
“Brentwood was the main chamber and Cool Springs was a subsidiary offshoot of the Brentwood chamber,” Lynn Tucker, the director for the chamber’s nonprofit foundation, said. “Cool Springs was the renegade chamber.”
Ironically, Williamson Inc.’s headquarters are now in the Cool Springs area, off Meridian Boulevard.
“I think the biggest challenge was that you had a small county covered by three chambers of commerce,” Largen said. “You didn’t have one large group that corporate citizens could plug into.”
According to Largen, the chairs of three chambers agreed on the idea of a merger. The group hired a facilitator, who recommended a transition board be formed. Largen was appointed to the board because of his background within the larger business community.
After being referred as a potential new CEO, Largen applied and went through nine hours of interviews for the position.
Once appointed, he worked to bring the county’s economic development branch into the new organization, with the help of Mayor Rogers Anderson.
“He liked the idea of spinning this out into the private and nonprofit sector so it could do some things it couldn’t do as part of county government,” Largen said.
After working with the Williamson chamber beginning in 1980 and later serving as its executive director and president, Nancy Conway now serves as the vice president of community development with the current chamber.
“To combine the forces and talents of the former Williamson County economic development arm, to merge all three of those entities and their memberships, assets and talents, it’s absolutely tremendous,” she said.
Conway said much of the focus in the early to mid 1980s was on the fledgling tourism industry and industrial businesses.
“The former chamber had a major division called industrial coordinating,” she said, which hosted weekly breakfast meetings for industrial leaders.
Now the Williamson County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, headed by President and CEO Ellie Westman Chin, takes care of the tourism aspect of economic development. However, this transition of power only took one of several items off the chamber’s plate.
Economic community development is one chamber duty. Nick Biniker, the economic development manager, said he focuses on business retention and expansion.
“That’s just making sure businesses already here have the resources they need,” he said, which includes workforce development through the local high schools and technical schools.
Pausing while working on a trends report on the past five years of economic development in the county, Biniker described himself as a “data guy.”
“Economic development is still pretty foreign to a lot of companies,” he said.
The chamber, he said, tries to be proactive in asking businesses what needs they have.
“That’s our goal, to make it more palatable for businesses,” Biniker finished.
Renee Shafer, the director of business partnerships, works to recruit businesses already in the community to partner with the chamber in their missions.
“We’re trying to be a little more innovative and cutting edge,” she said, referencing educational pushes, like the chamber’s recent push for the sales tax increase to fund the construction of new schools.
And the chamber, Shafer said, has been heavily involved in seeking regional transit solutions. They traveled to Denver in the fall for a transit case study and then hosted a transportation summit.
Benefits of membership include more than 120 events each year, which Shafer said are “opportunities to network, to grow their brand awareness, to kind of tell their story, to be a part of the community and on the cutting edge of all the things that go on in Williamson County.”
“We try to be real intentional about the programs that we offer, to cater to all our demographics in Williamson County,” she said, mentioning the diversity of businesses in the county; ninety percent of the county’s companies have ten employees or fewer.
Leigh Bawcom is the director of business development, and works on engaging members to make sure they take full advantage of their membership. Bawcom is on six committees within the chamber, including topics like women in business, young professionals and ambassadors.
“I think it’s neat being a connector of people and of businesses,” she said.
Recent hire Kel McDowell is the director of government affairs, playing a vital role for businesses affected by local and state regulations.
“A key part of what I do is staying on top of what is going on with our local governments and having a familiarity there,” he said, to be prepared and aware of community issues. McDowell often attends county commission meetings, and even drove to different polling locations on election day for the sales tax referendum to get a sense for how voters felt.
Employees say they love meeting the diverse people and businesses that comprise the community.
Tucker, who coordinates Leadership Brentwood, Youth Leadership Brentwood, and Leadership Brentwood Alumni, said she relishes the opportunity to experience new ideas while working with those groups.
“We have 24 new youth leadership members every year. We have 20 new adult leaders every year. So my favorite part is, every single year, I get 44 new friends,” Tucker said. “It is just a lot of fun.”
Largen summed up his favorite aspect of his job with an anecdote about a manufacturing day the chamber hosts each year for students.
“We had a chamber member come up and say to us, ‘My son was aimless before he took that tour of a manufacturing facility. He didn’t know what to do in life,'” Largen said. “‘Until he got a chance to tour one of those facilities last year, and now he’s got a direction. He’s working hard at a degree at Columbia State [Community College] and I think it gave him purpose and value.'”
Largen said the conversation made him grateful for his position in the community. “That’s really cool. To know that we can have the impact on a life like that.”