LeHew Mansion Tour

The first public tour of the LeHew Innovation Center in Franklin.

After the O’More College of Design — a small, private interior design and architecture school — was acquired by Belmont University in 2018, Franklin preservationists feared the fate of the historic estate.

But O’More’s exit led Williamson County leaders to rethink its approach to preservation and future economic growth. It needed startups.

And so the Flemming-Farah mansion — one of two 19th-century homes constructed on the five-acre estate — was repurposed into Williamson Innovation Center, a co-working space designed to foster the area’s entrepreneurial ecosystem thanks to a partnership between Williamson Inc and the Heritage Foundation who owns the property.

This month, Williamson Inc. hosted an open house of sorts to showcase the 4,100-square-foot Franklin Innovation Center and introduce its first three tenants, who moved into the space just three months ago.

The ornate, two-story residence features six individual office suites that range in size from 150 square feet to nearly 350 square feet and are available to companies to lease for a one-year term with the option to apply for renewal for up to two additional years. In addition to their own private suites, tenants have access to a conference room, kitchen area, phone booths, and large outdoor seating/work area with dedicated WiFi access.

With the Heritage Foundation’s emphasis on economic vitality in downtown Franklin, she said, “it was a natural fit that we have an incubator for new businesses in the setting of historic preservation.”

Rental rates, which range from $400 to $800 a month, are roughly a quarter of the cost of comparable co-working space in the highly sought after area.

Prospective tenants are interviewed and selected by an eight-person advisory committee, who Largen says considers a variety of factors including the entrepreneur’s background, the size and scalability of their business and financial needs. He adds that the center is not recruiting a specific industry or sector — such as tech or health care — but will be focused on attracting a diverse group of entrepreneurs.

Current tenants include, Tetra Hearing — a company that has designed a line of products that allows hunters to isolate specific game frequencies, RxThat — a healthcare technology company that aims to help people easily fin`d the best price for their medication and Trace Femcare — a company that touts itself as the creator of the world’s first hemp fiber tampon and has plans for a full line of hemp fiber feminine products.

“The entrepreneurs of today will be the large, sustainable employers of tomorrow,” Williamson Inc president and CEO Matt Largen said. “Engaging them early and providing support and resources to keep them in Williamson County will be critical to the long-term success of the area.”

Williamson County is home to 25 Inc 5000 companies, accounting for 21 percent of all the Inc 5000 companies in Tennessee, and over the past 12 months the area has jolted further into the national business spotlight six major headquarter relocations including:

But its startup scene has been somewhat siloed from the attention.

“We’re really proud of the reputation and recognition we’ve garnered as a result of those corporate relocations and expansions.” Largen said.  “But it’s important that entrepreneurs know that Williamson County isn’t just business-friendly for headquarters, but for all businesses.”

“I would like to see the Innovation Center become the front door for entrepreneurship in Williamson County,” Largen said.