They say luck is the nexus of opportunity and hard work, and that we’re a whole lot less likely to find success while sitting on the couch. But pandemics change circumstances, and perspectives.
Debbie Landers is the head of the chamber of commerce in Hohenwald, and hour or so southwest of Franklin. Like a lot of small towns, generational challenges related to economic opportunity have made luck hard to manufacture. Something changed this year, when the phone started ringing.
“I got a call one Saturday back in April from Aubrey Preston, asking what I was seeing in terms of inquiries from people looking to relocate,” Landers remembers. “I told him that in the past week, I had calls from California, New York, New England, people wanting a different way of life. One gentleman was stuck with his wife and child in an 800-square-foot apartment in the city, and the grocery store had run out of food. They were desperate to get out of there.”
Landers and Preston quickly realized they were on to something – a moment in time where the opportunities like broadband deployment and a new work-from-home phenomenon matched up perfectly with open-armed communities looking for smart people to bring their passions and talents to town. They began to brainstorm parameters, and Nashville’s Big Back Yard started to take shape: 12 communities with populations under 5,000, all located on a 100-mile stretch of the Natchez Trace Parkway.
As she started calling on her colleagues in places that fit the bill, she was confronted with another phenomenon.
“In an hour and fifteen minutes, every single one of those communities had committed,” she says. “I’ve been in tourism and community development since 1996, and I’ve never seen such regional collaboration around a common mission, or even a specific initiative. Ever.”
Likewise, county and city governments, local businesses and individuals quickly got on board, contributing what they could to get the concept off the ground and in front of the people they wanted to attract. Nashville’s Big Back Yard rolled out to the public in early October, with a robust website and a story that deserved to be told. As they started telling it, through familiar voices like Mike Wolfe alongside natives and newcomers doing amazing things in these tiny towns, people from all over the world started reacting. Web traffic, social media engagement and inquiries about relocations exploded.
Landers, who now does double duty as the executive director of Nashville’s Big Back Yard, says they’ll measure success in tourism expenditures, population growth, new business starts and investments. So far, they’ve seen it happening already.
For Preston – who just loves to throw an idea into a ring of people he’s convinced to share their talents, then sit back and watch it grow – it all started with too much time on the couch.
“It was the end of March and we were all on lockdown and I was just sitting there bored, watching TV. One thing I’ve learned through past recessions is that it’s smart to work hard in the bad times to get ready for the good times,” he explains. “Why not create a website that worked like a virtual antique mall, where each of these communities had a booth? The Natchez Trace set the table for America way back when, and then for Nashville, and then for Williamson County. It has the potential to do the same for these communities that are fortunate enough to be situated alongside it.”
As a grassroots economic development initiative, Nashville’s Big Back Yard has a lot to offer: world-class environmental diversity, and the beauty that comes with it; the allure of discovery and the want of Americans to get back to what’s really important in life; the technological ability to provide the right kinds of infrastructure, including the broadband internet fiber being aggressively deployed; and – perhaps most importantly – affordable real estate, and lots of it.
Anchored by Nashville to the north and the Shoals area just across the line into Alabama, small towns including Centerville, Santa Fe, Mount Pleasant, Hampshire, Hohenwald, Summertown, Linden, Clifton, Waynesboro, Collinwood and Loretto span six counties – some of the state’s poorest connected to some of its most fortunate by a National Scenic Parkway, along with a collection of talented people willing to work together.
“It starts with proximity, and that’s what matters, but as it has through the history of our country, technology changes the game,” Preston says. “Here we have both, and these isolated towns aren’t that far away anymore, and they have such cultural diversity. These are the places and experiences that folks all across America are longing for.”
You can see the overflow of opportunity that has occurred over decades, starting with Nashville, spilling into Williamson County, then Maury, down the transportation corridors and natural growth pathways. The offering is as good as any to be found anywhere, and the timing and circumstances have aligned perfectly.
“A lot of these towns have been struggling for a long time, with Main Streets dying, industries leaving, and the best and brightest of their population being forced to seek opportunity elsewhere,” Preston says. “As a state, we’re like a person with poor circulation – a lot of blood in our heart, but if we could only get it to pump out to the extremities… We’ll do a lot better as Tennesseans if we ask how we can help other communities be successful. It’s just the right thing to do.”
Compare Williamson County’s growth rate over the past decade (30%) to Perry, Wayne and Lewis of essentially zero. Consider the median residential price per square foot ($208 in Williamson, $64 in Wayne). Then take a look at NashvillesBigBackyard.org, and realize what all that 100-mile stretch brings to the table – not only for newcomers, but natives alike. It’s a tapestry of Tennessee, waiting to be discovered.
Landers finds inspiration in not only the concept, but the execution of it. After so many years of struggling to create development channels, this idea at this particular moment in time appears to be serendipitous.
“People want a simpler place, a cleaner, healthier, more rewarding way of living, and that’s what we have here,” she says.
As luck would have it, the effort – prompted by crisis and sustained by hope and hard work – is kind of like a long, leisurely drive down the Trace. You don’t know what lies around the next bend, but you’re pretty sure it’s going to be even better than expected.