At a chamber of commerce event welcoming Mitsubishi North America to Williamson County in late 2019, Franklin artist Roy Laws used rapid fire brush strokes to paint a Mitsubishi Lancer rounding a curve on a dirt track.
As Laws painted, Mitsubishi North America CEO Fred Diaz praised Tennessee’s willingness to “bend over backwards” for the company. Laws set up his canvas before Diaz started speaking, and finished by the end of the event.
Matt Largen, the CEO of the local chamber of commerce, Williamson Inc., presented the painting to Mitsubishi as a welcome gift. That’s in addition to $3 million in economic incentives from the state and a break in property taxes from Williamson County.
That combination distills what companies get when they come to Williamson County: a creative community and a friendly business environment.
Over the last two decades, Williamson County has become a magnet for corporate headquarters. Companies often cite the state’s relatively low tax burden and Williamson County’s strong school system as important factors in their decision to relocate or expand in Williamson County.
Recently, businesses, local governments and artists are pointing to Middle Tennessee’s creators — the area’s musicians, chefs, actors and designers — as another important driver of economic development.
“It’s incredibly important to what we do because quality of life matters so much now in economic decisions that companies make and people make,” Largen said. “They’re driven to the community by things like the arts and culture.”
Mitsubishi communications director Jeremy Barns wrote in an email that Williamson County's historical preservation as well as access to music, theaters and museums did play a role in Mitsubishi’s decision to move to Williamson County. However, it was only one of several factors including local talent, cost of living and the business environment.
At the event welcoming Mitsubishi to Williamson County, Barnes connected with Todd Morgan, the managing director for the Franklin theater company Studio Tenn. Morgan invited a group of Mitsubishi employees to a dress rehearsal for the theater’s production of Cinderella.
Morgan said he often reaches out to local companies to build fundraising relationships, especially companies with employees moving to Williamson County from out of state.
“They moved from New York or California, and they’re used to having arts in their backyard,” he said. “Even if the job is awesome and everything you want, they’re still going to want things outside of that. They’re still going to want their creature comforts. Where do I go to a basketball game? Where do I go to see live theater?”
Mitsubishi came to Tennessee from Southern California, the center of the film and music industries. In 2019, the medical device company Medacta moved its U.S. headquarters to Franklin from Chicago, a theater and music hub. In 2018, the finance company AllianceBernstein moved to Nashville from New York City, home to Broadway, Carnegie Hall and some of the best art museums in the world.
Kim Moore, the site consultant for Newmark Knight Frank who played a key role in bringing the finance company AllianceBernstein to Tennessee, said that decision started with a trip to the Pilgrimage Music and Arts Festival in Franklin. Williamson Inc. invited Moore on a “red carpet tour” of the area in 2016, and Pilgrimage was acentral part of the visit.
Moore, who works with companies to select locations for offices, said that the number one factor that companies consider when choosing a location is the access to talented employees. She said those employees are looking for communities with rich cultural diversity and openness to new ideas.
“The arts provide that in spades. They provide that more than anything. They provide exposure to things you wouldn’t see unless you traveled the world,” she said. “They can bring that to you without you having to really leave your doorstep.”
Moore said the arts are an especially important factor for tech companies and companies searching for a headquarters location, two of the most important business sectors for economic development in Williamson County.
Before working for Newmark Knight Frank, Moore was on the economic development team for Dallas, Texas in the early 2000s. In 2001, the city was in the running for the Boeing headquarters, but lost the bid to Chicago because Dallas didn’t have enough art. Partially in response to the Boeing snub, Dal las created a 70-acre arts district with art museums, theaters, an opera and green spaces. Several years ago, a group including Ellie Westman Chin, the CEO of Visit Franklin, the organization tasked with promoting tourism to Williamson County, pushed the City of Franklin to create a public arts commission.
The arts commission works with artists to bring art to public spaces and encourages developers to include art in their designs.
“We thought public art was kind of missing in Franklin, but we’re kind of made for it,” she said. “Franklin as a whole is a great backdrop for public art.”
Since its inception, the arts commission has worked with artists to install a bike rack designed to represent the Harpeth River, and a series of miniature bronze horses scattered throughout Franklin, encouraging people to explore the city.
For the last several years, Michael Damico has worked to highlight the economic importance of art in Williamson County. He owns Damico Frame and Art Gallery in Franklin and serves as the president for the Arts Council of Williamson County, which he described as a chamber of commerce for artists.
Damico said it feels like the community organizations, governments and developers are beginning to recognize how arts can contribute to economic development.
“It’s a bit of a tidal force happening right here, right now,” he said. “I think we’re waking up to this notion that there is economic impact.”
In 2011, Damico started a monthly art crawl with a handful of other art gallery operators. On the first Friday of every month, the art crawl winds through a network of shops in downtown Franklin exhibiting visual art. He said the event has since grown tremendously.
Franklin Assistant City Administrator for Economic and Community Development Ver non Gerth said he agrees that the arts are critical for economic development.
“I know it is. There is no doubt,” he said. “Any time we can bring different people together to reflect a sense of culture and pride, a uniqueness, a brand, there’s many ways to put it, that’s all very good for ... the quality of life of a community.”
He said the city is hoping to develop a set of guidelines for developers that want to incorporate art into their projects. Gerth said he hopes that will evolve into a financial incentive that would cover the cost of hiring an artist or maintaining the art.
Even with all that momentum, Damico said he still thinks local governments and the arts community can do more to support the arts.
He said he hopes that artists in Williamson County can work together to create some kind of “central nervous system” for the arts. This central hub would coordinate with artists to make the most of the county’s artistic resources, such as space or funding.
Damico and Studio Tenn’s Todd Morgan both said one of the most urgent needs in the arts community is more space for rehearsals, classrooms and performances. Their hope is that local governments could step in to create that space.
Williamson County already operates a performing arts center in Franklin, but Morgan said demand is high and it’s not always easy to get access to space.
In an email, Williamson County Parks and Recreation Director Gordon Hampton pointed out that the county does support the arts by allowing artists to use county facilities, and also provides arts programming such as community band, music and art classes.
There were more than 2,000 independent artists in Williamson County in 2017, and the arts and entertainment industry contributed nearly $1 billion to the local economy in 2018.
The business services, health care and finance industries have a much bigger direct economic impact, but the indirect impact is much more difficult to measure. The arts are a critical component of quality of life, that intangible factor so many companies are looking for. As Middle Tennessee’s reputation as a prime destination for corporate offices continues to grow, creators could be the element that elevates Williamson County to the top of the list.