Deviation from the norm isn’t always a bad thing.

In almost every metric used to determine an area’s quality of life, Williamson County is an outlier when compared to the rest of the state.

recent report on income, poverty, education and insurance coverage in Tennessee, released by the Sycamore Institute, reflects large rural-versus-urban differences among the state’s 95 counties.

But the report also shows that Williamson County stands alone in numerous demographics.

It’s the only county in Tennessee with a median household income of more than $75,000. It’s $103,000.

It’s the only county with a poverty rate below five percent.

And it’s the only county where more than 40 percent of adults have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Writing on the wall

If you think Williamson County’s position as a leader in population growth is new, think again.

Between 1980 and 1997, it also led Tennessee’s 95 counties in growth, some of which can be attributed to major investments such as the former Saturn plant in Spring Hill, which opened in 1990 with thousands of employees.

A 1997 survey by American City Business Journals Inc. ranked Williamson County third out of 841 metro counties with the most growth potential.

“The challenges we’re dealing with now are really nothing new for Williamson County,” said Matt Largen, CEO of Williamson Inc., the county’s chamber of commerce.

“It really is not about creating growth — it’s how you manage the growth that’s going to come. Our migration patterns have shown that people vote with their feet, and they voted to come (here),” he said.

A study released 20 years ago by the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research projected that by 2020, Williamson County’s population would be just under 200,000.

But reality has outpaced those estimates, as more than 220,000 people now call the county home.

Between 2010 and 2017, its population grew by more than 23 percent.

While the numbers seem jarring, officials frequently say it’s a good problem to have.

“In economic development, I’d much rather have the challenge of too much traffic than not enough traffic,” Largen said. “It means opportunities for our residents, for their kids and their grandkids, to have a better job to lift them up.”

Growth projections estimate that by 2028, the county will gain 34,000 new residents, for a 15 percent increase, according to a population demographics report provided by Williamson Inc.

Tennessee’s population as a whole is projected to grow by 4 percent over the same period.

Wealth begets wealth

U.S. Census data suggests many of the folks moving to Williamson share some economic indicators with existing residents. As population has increased, even over the last decade, so has the number of residents with bachelor’s degrees, for example.

“As people are moving in, you’re seeing these numbers growing even stronger, so Williamson County is attracting folks that already have high levels of education (and) higher incomes. The overall effect is that it’s causing these numbers to grow even faster than the rest of the state,” said Mandy Pellegrin, policy director at the Sycamore Institute.

 

And while the largest employers today include company headquarters, corporate operations and the health care sector, a large share of projected job openings in the late 1990s were in the low-skill service sector, according to the UT study.

One-third of the new jobs created were projected to require a high school diploma or less, while about 38 percent were expected to require one to three years of college. Twenty-eight percent of future jobs were projected to require at least a bachelor’s degree.

“The growth of these types of jobs stresses the importance of a community’s ability to provide a spectrum of quality workers at various levels of training,” the report said.

Today, the most dominant industry in the county is in professional, scientific and technical services, comprising 23 percent of jobs, which is higher than the national rate of 14 percent.

Those lower-paying service jobs, which typically mean fewer fringe benefits and fewer full-time positions, presented a challenge that has yet to be addressed: Where would those workers live?

The housing puzzle

Paul Pratt has spent his entire life in Franklin, watching his home county evolve over the last half-century. He credits the quality public school system and private school options, as well as careful planning by public officials, with helping build today’s quality of life in his community.

But Pratt, president and CEO of Full Service Insurance in Franklin, also said there are too many people who work in the county, but can’t afford to live there.

“Growing up here as a kid in the ’60s and ’70s, I’d go to grocery stores and run into our teachers, our police officers. And our parents taught us to respect those people,” Pratt said. “Today, they’re all having to migrate, and it’s a huge concern.”

The worst part?

“They’ve talked about it for 20 years, and nothing’s ever happened,” he said.

The lack of affordable housing in Williamson is well documented in the UT report.

In 1996, nearly 40 percent of all homes sold cost $200,000 or more. Adjusted for inflation, that would be more than $338,000 in 2018 dollars.

“The problem is exacerbated by the lack of affordable rental property, especially multi-family, and the decreased usage of mobile homes as a source of single-family dwellings,” the report said.

“For the more affluent residents in the community, this may actually be an attractive outcome at first glance since many view the presence of trailer parks and apartment complexes as disamenities … however, it could lead to obstacles in the overall economic development of the county and raise the cost of locally provided goods and services.”

Today, with the median home sale price in Williamson exceeding $500,000, the housing affordability problem has expanded beyond the service industry and into the public sector. Teachers, police, firefighters and others are struggling to find affordable housing in the county they serve, and county officials are well aware of the problem. 

It’s hard to determine whether the shrinking number of households in that range is attributed to people being forced to move to more affordable communities, or if the influx of transplants with high-paying jobs has tipped the scales over time.

And while $75,000 is enough income for the average family to survive on in other areas, it’s nowhere near enough to afford a mortgage in Williamson County.

Largen, the Williamson Inc. CEO, said the chamber is hoping to work with public and private entities to make what he calls “attainable housing” a reality in the county.

“We’re working to find housing options for people regardless of where they are in their career,” he said.

The key, he said, is public-private partnerships and working with developers to build housing that’s dense enough to be profitable, and affordable enough for middle-class employees to live in the community where they work.

Median income

Percent with a bachelor’s degree

Percent living in poverty

Reach Elaina Sauber at esauber@tennessean.com, 615-571-1172 or follow @ElainaSauber on Twitter.

The future of Williamson County

In a series of stories throughout 2019, The Tennessean’s Williamson County team will explore how the community is changing, from population growth and green space to incomes and infrastructure.

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