Cool Springs in 1985. / Photo courtesy of Williamson Inc.
By MATT BLOIS
This story is part of a series Home Page Media Group is running to celebrate our 10th anniversary.
Williamson County’s economy has expanded rapidly over the last 10 years, and has also become a magnet for corporate headquarters.
In September 2009, when Home Page Media Page launched its first site, the unemployment rate in Williamson County was 7.5 percent. Nissan North America finished building its headquarters in Cool Springs the year before.
Now, the unemployment rate is around 3.2 percent and a growing list of recognizable companies, such as Mitsubishi, have followed Nissan to Cool Springs.
Williamson Inc. CEO Matt Largen called Nissan’s decision to move to Williamson County an economic game changer.
“I think the success Nissan had when they moved here proved that you could operate a large scale global headquarters operation outside of the east and west coast,” he said. “Nissan was and still is a beacon for other companies looking at corporate operations in Williamson County.”
In 2009, Largen was working for Williamson County’s department of economic development. That department doesn’t exist anymore. Instead, five separate chambers of commerce from across the county merged in 2012 to form Williamson Inc. Largen now leads that unified chamber chamber.
Despite all the changes, the pitch Largen uses to convince companies to do business in Williamson County hasn’t changed all that much.
A 2009 PowerPoint presentation from the Williamson County department of economic development highlights the county’s strong public schools, high level of education and low taxes.
The presentation points to the success of companies that had already relocated to Williamson County, such as Nissan, Mars Petcare and Verizon Wireless.
Some of those corporate relocations have flourished. Nissan now has about 1,800 employees and Mars Petcare completed construction of its expanded headquarters in June.
Others have had less success. Williamson County gave Verizon a 40 percent break on property taxes to create more than 600 jobs and build an office on Duke Drive in Franklin. According to the Nashville Business Journal, that office closed in 2018, after the tax incentives had expired, and many employees were asked to work from home.
The health care company Healthways, now called Tivity, was the county’s second largest employer in 2008 with 900 employees. Now, that company had downsized to about 550 employees.
Overall, the economy has grown. Williamson County has about 50,000 more jobs than it did 10 years ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It also has about 50,000 more people.
The median household income in Williamson County was about $88,000 in 2009, compared to about $103,500 in 2017, according to the American Community Survey. That’s about a 3 percent increase in buying power after accounting for inflation.
Much of that growth happened in the health care Industry. Community Health Systems had about 800 employees in 2008, according to a document from the Williamson County economic development department. Now, that number has increased to more than 2,300. CHS had more than 3,000 employees in 2016.
Currently, 11 of the top 25 employers in Williamson County are in the healthcare industry. Only two of those companies were on a list of top employers in 2008.
Road construction has moved slower than many commuters would have liked. One county document from 2008 estimated construction on the westward Mack Hatcher Extension would start in 2010. Construction started last year.
However, commute times have barely budged over the last decade. It took the average Williamson County worker a little more than 26 minutes to get to work in 2009. By 2017, the average commute was just over 27 minutes, according to the American Community Survey.
Largen also pointed out that Williamson County was one of two counties in Tennessee that didn’t technically experience a recession during the financial crisis.
“We knew they were underwater with their houses. We knew there were a lot of people who were unemployed,” he said. “But we didn’t feel it the way other counties in Tennessee felt it. I think there was always some optimism that we were going to get out of this.”
In fact, the number of new business licenses increased during the financial crisis. During a talk in 2009, Largen told the Spring Hill chamber of commerce new business starts quadrupled between December 2007 and December 2008.
When the county emerged from the economic slowdown in 2008, leaders continued to focus on positioning Williamson County as a destination for corporate relocations.
In 2010, the finance company Jackson decided struck a deal with Williamson County to relocate its headquarters from Lansing, Michigan. Tractor Supply signed an agreement to expand its Brentwood headquarters in 2012, and Dave Ramsey’s company followed in 2015.
About 10 to 15 years ago, Largen said the main factor driving corporate relocation decisions switched from the price of real estate to access to talent.
“When it flipped we were really well positioned to capture that flip because of our strong school systems,” he said. “School systems are the talent magnet. They draw the talent here. Parents want to put their kids in great schools, and companies follow the talent.”
Since 2009, the targets for corporate relocation have grown larger. Williamson Inc. played a key role in bringing the finance company Alliance Bernstein to the Nashville area, and also participated in talks with Amazon. Largen doesn’t expect the pace to slow down.
“Success breeds success,” he said. “Nissan was the beacon, but every company that came after that gave the next company more assurance that this is a great place for them to locate in terms of cost savings and finding the talent they need.”