Leadership Middle Tennessee travels across ten (10) Middle Tennessee counties over a year, and everyone in our class was looking forward to visiting Williamson County to hear about the quality of life and the exploding economic development in Williamson County. All of the exploding growth can affect the quality of life. Our two days in Williamson County focused on learning from the county’s strengths but also learning from its challenges.
Our first stop was at the Park at Harlinsdale Farm, which is a 200 acre farm that a local family sold to the city of Franklin so that the city could turn it into a park. It is only five (5) minutes from downtown Franklin. Harlinsdale Farm was the home to Indian burial grounds, a Civil War battlefield, and to a walking horse farm. Now, there is a conservation easement and the Friends of Franklin Parks, a public/private partnership, are working to raise money and they have added various amenities including canoe launches, greenways, a dog park, and a $1.5 million dollar arena.
Various events are hosted at the park including the Pilgrimage Music Festival, polo matches, horse shows, and fireworks displays. Tractor Supply Company has naming rights as the corporate sponsor of the park’s arena. There is a tree farm on the property, and the city’s arborist transplants trees from the tree farm to other parks around Franklin. Future plans include a museum and interpretive center. Parks and green spaces like Harlinsdale Farm are a big part of the quality of life of Williamson County.
Another part of Williamson County that makes it unique and attractive to potential residents and to new businesses is its focus on preserving history, including historic Carnton Plantation. The house at Carnton Plantation is 190 years old and it has been restored with 90% original materials. Over and over again throughout Franklin we heard from one person after another that our respective counties should not tear down historic buildings, but that we should save our historic buildings. We also learned that historic preservation is big business in the form of tourism. Carnton Plantation alone had over 125,000 visitors in 2015.
We met Mary Pearce who has been the Executive Director of the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County for the past 31 years. The Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Mary Pearce said, “Tearing down historic buildings tears down what represents the stories of your community. Make your community a special place. People can choose where to live, so help them choose your community. Historic preservation means economic development. If your courthouse moves out of your historic downtown, then it will kill your historic downtown.” Mary went on to tell us about how they preserved their “old, old jail” and put the Heritage Foundation offices inside of it. They also preserved their “old jail.” Their new jail cost $80 million dollars to build. Franklin kept the jail downtown near the two older jails, because as Mary said, “Nobody wants a jail in their neighborhood.” Franklin had to fight to keep their courthouse and jail in their downtown, and Mary said, “It was worth it.” Their 600 car downtown parking garage cost approximately $12 million to build.
Mary Pearce told our class that historic, downtown Franklin “didn’t always look like this.” She showed our class a PowerPoint presentation that showed before and after pictures of downtown Franklin. The before pictures featured what it looked like in the 1970’s when you could buy a downtown building in Franklin for $50,000. The after pictures showed downtown Franklin today where buildings are going for $2 million to $3 million dollars per building. Since the 1970’s, Franklin invested in a Streetscape project, they became a Mainstreet Community, and the city and county partnered with each other on various projects. Franklin restored the historic 330 seat Franklin Theater and marquee. They spent $8.5 million to renovate the theater, and now the theater has helped to raise over $3 million dollars for other charitable organizations. Now, downtown Franklin has four large festivals a year including their Mainstreet Festival, Pumpkinfest, and Brewfest. These festivals attract approximately 200,000 people per year to their historic downtown.
Next, we met Franklin’s Mayor Dr. Ken Moore. He told us that he sees Franklin as a “blessed community.” Franklin has been able to combine historic preservation, economic development, great community public schools, a vibrant historic downtown, and tourism to become the 14th fastest growing city in America. In ten years, Williamson County will have 20,000 more students and will need 17 more schools. Franklin ranks in the Top 10 in America as a place to raise a family, to retire, and to start a new business. Mayor Moore commented on how saving the “old, old jail,” the “old jail,” the “old post office,” the “old hospital,” and other historic sites were worth it, and were part of what makes Franklin different. He cited public/private partnerships and city/county partnerships over and over. Franklin has a “visioning group” called Franklin Tomorrow that focuses on planning for the future, but also on preserving the past. Challenges cited by Mayor Moore included new subdivisions never being able to pay for the services that they will require, lack of affordable housing, transportation/traffic problems, and the gentrification of the community. All of these challenges can be overcome with extensive planning and with people working together to solve the problems without worrying about who gets the credit.
STRONG PUBLIC EDUCATION
Education became the focus at our next couple of stops. Remarkably, Williamson County schools were not always great like they are now. According to County Mayor Rogers Anderson, in 1986 the schools in Williamson County were poor, so several county commissioners got together and discussed building four brand new elementary schools. From that point on, education was a huge focus for the county. Today, 70% of the Williamson County budget goes to education. Property taxes and fees charged to home builders fund the public schools in Williamson County. There is an $8,800 education impact fee charged for every home building permit issued in Williamson County. Williamson County creates equity all across the county by having everyone teach the same things in the same order, which is called scope of sequence. They provide the same services to every student at every school, regardless of where the school is located, regardless of socioeconomics, regardless of race, and regardless of when the school was built. Williamson tries to take care of what affects the tone or perception of a school. Resources are allocated to help underperforming schools such as additional math and reading coaches being provided, computers on wheels being provided for students who don’t have their own devices, and creating lower student to teacher ratios in some schools.
Patrick Cammack, Director of Economic Development for Williamson Inc., spoke to the 2017 LMT class about the strengths and challenges for Williamson County, but he focused much of his comments on transportation/traffic issues. He stated that each day 32,000 citizens drive out of Williamson County to work, but 28,000 people drive into Williamson County to work. This creates traffic and gridlock. Some suggested solutions included mass transportation, flex schedules for employees, and working from home. He said that some Williamson County residents do not want growth or they at least want it to slow down. Growth causes change and both growth and change can be challenging.
Visiting Williamson County was extremely eye opening. We all knew about the strengths of the county, but not all of were aware of the challenges that Williamson County faces. Many of these challenges have been created by the rapid growth of the county. More people mean more schools, more traffic, and more services to be provided by the city and county government. The lesson that I think we all learned is that prosperity has a price, and that controlled, planned growth is better than unbridled growth. Hopefully, that is a lesson that all of our class can take back to our respective counties.
Carton was the home of John and Carrie McGavock and Fountain Branch Carter’s family and farm is now referenced as The Carter House. While both homes were and remain on the Franklin Battlefield, Carnton and it’s 950 acres was on the Eastern Flank portion and served as the largest field hospital and the Carter farm 285 acres west adjacent to Carnton, separated by the railroad, held the most center portion of the battlefield. The main battle line continued westward towards the other bank of the Harpeth. A town of only 7-800 in 1864 was fully engulfed, but the people, town, state and country found a way to move this great united nation forward. The staff at the Trust tries to learn, and help others learn from our past in our strive to live a better present and navigate a better future.