by Michael Cass
Ten years ago, a patch of farmland along Interstate 24 in Murfreesboro was mostly quiet except for the sounds of grazing animals and the cars rushing by.
A decade later, Rutherford County has an additional 80,581 residents, and that land holds The Avenue of Murfreesboro, a sprawling retail development, as well as an Embassy Suites hotel and conference center and the relocated Middle Tennessee Medical Center.
"Rutherford County was and is still known as one of the fastest-growing counties in Tennessee," said Lindy Mullen, marketing manager for The Avenue of Murfreesboro.
"It was also being recognized nationally as one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. With close proximity to Nashville, the infrastructure in place and anticipated growth for the community, Murfreesboro was a perfect fit for The Avenue."
With Rutherford leading the way, Middle Tennessee grew at a rapid clip from 2000 to 2010. New census data shows that Davidson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson and Wilson counties added almost 250,000 people, growing almost 23 percent as a unit. With that growth, came a business boom in suburban counties, as well as expanded racial and ethnic diversity across the region.
The five counties accounted for 38 percent of the entire state’s 95-county growth. Each of them was among the top 10 in terms of new residents, and all but Davidson were in the top 10 for the rate of growth. Overall, Tennessee grew 11.5 percent, while the South grew 14.3 percent and the nation 9.7 percent.
A diverse mix of settings, a generally welcoming approach to people from other countries, reasonable weather, tolerable commutes and a solid economy all played a role in Middle Tennessee’s growth, experts said.
Metro Planning Director Rick Bernhardt said the region has "all kinds of locational advantages."
"We’re right between the Sun Belt of the Southeast and the Rust Belt of the Northeast," Bernhardt said. "It’s a good location, from a climate point of view. There’s good transportation access."
Experts expect Middle Tennessee to continue to grow. Dan Cornfield, a Vanderbilt University sociology professor who specializes in labor and immigration issues, said the robust service economy, strong creative industries and a reputation as a good place for refugees to resettle have helped the region.
"Because of the many reasons people migrate to Nashville, there’s a very wide ethnic range, an unusually ethnically and religiously diverse population," he said.
A business boom
Nissan North America moved its headquarters to the Cool Springs area of Franklin in Williamson County, which had the state’s fastest growth rate, with a 44.7 percent population increase, slightly ahead of Rutherford County, which led in sheer numbers of new residents. With that move came a slew of new families and professionals to Middle Tennessee.
Aubrey Preston, an investor who helped lure the automaker there, said "a thousand little things" have made Williamson desirable.
The county has a mix of suburban, rural and small-town settings, all a short drive from Nashville, said Preston, who also led the Leiper’s Fork preservation movement that started in 1995.
"You can be in Leiper’s Fork, sitting at a table talking to farmers, real farmers, and also be at the table with extremely successful entertainers, songwriters, health-care entrepreneurs, and then in 15 minutes you can be at the No. 1 Main Street in the Southeast in Franklin," he said. "I won the lottery by being here at this place in time."
Brian Moore, who started the Sweet CeCe’s frozen yogurt chain with his wife, CeCe, after they moved to Franklin from California, said he wanted to limit competition by putting as many shops as possible along the growing I-440, I-65, Highway 96 and Highway 100 corridors.
Business boomed soon after Sweet CeCe’s got started in Belle Meade and Franklin.
"Everyone was coming in," Moore said. "I thought, ‘We’ve got to put one in Green Hills, Brentwood, Cool Springs.’ I think we’ve done a really good job protecting that corridor."
Northeast of Nashville, Sumner County grew more than 23 percent, adding 30,000 people in 10 years. Hendersonville alone gained 10,752 people, growing more than 26 percent.
Don Long, Hendersonville’s director of economic and community development, said good parks, schools and the presence of Old Hickory Lake have been big draws for the city, which has more than 51,000 residents. Now, Hendersonville is focusing on more than $1 billion worth of approved construction, including a 450-acre mixed-use development called Indian Lake Village.
"There’s still room for commercial and residential growth," Long said.
Antioch and other parts of southeast Davidson County also have grown quickly. A Metro Council district that includes part of Brentwood now has more than 29,000 residents, a 73 percent increase since the last redistricting, based on the 2000 census.
Councilman Parker Toler said the area has broad appeal, with houses listed anywhere from $60,000 to $2.5 million.
"It’s an area where people want to be, and it has a range of homes, from affordable to very expensive," Toler said.
Councilman Sam Coleman, who represents an Antioch district just east of Toler’s, said developers started discovering large farms in the area in the late 1980s. Affordable housing began to draw people, and "then it really caught fire for about 15 years," Coleman said.
Now the area needs services, including a new library, sidewalks and more attention to public safety, to keep pace with that growth, he said.
A new destination
Growth in the Hispanic population accounted for more than half of the United States’ overall growth during the decade, the Census Bureau said. The story was similar in Davidson County, where the percentage of Hispanic residents jumped from 4.6 percent to 9.75 percent.
Rates more than doubled in Rutherford, Sumner and Wilson counties, while Williamson was up substantially as well.
Stephanie Bohon, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, said Nashville and some other Southern cities, such as Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., are known as "new destinations" for Hispanics. Many people are coming from other places in the United States after getting recommendations from networks of friends and family along the lines of "Nashville’s a nicer place to live than East Los Angeles," she said.
They also tend to be better educated than Hispanics living in more traditional destinations such as Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. "The educated Latino population is seeing greater opportunity for professional jobs in the Southeast," Bohon said.
Some of the rapid growth is simply a result of the fact that the Hispanic population is younger than whites, African-Americans and other groups. "It’s not that they’re having more kids," Bohon said. "It’s that so many of them are in their prime child-rearing years."
Renata Soto, executive director of Conexion Americas, which helps Latino families in Middle Tennessee, said more people have come here from California than from anywhere else.
"People have tried to make it there, and jobs are not available," Soto said. "Even Middle Tennessee has struggled with the employment rate. But it seems that when compared with other states, there’s at least hope that there will be more choices here."
Soto said some Hispanic families are trying to put down roots in unusual circumstances. Even as the head of household moves away from Middle Tennessee for a few months to take a short-term job, his or her family is staying here.
Nashville lacks sites
Bernhardt and Ralph Schulz, president and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, said Nashville and the surrounding counties have worked together well as a region. They’ve marketed Nashville’s big-city offerings, such as pro sports, alongside the lower-key appeals of the suburbs.
"When you take the region as a whole, you’re going to get this kind of growth," Schulz said.
But David Crabtree, executive vice president of real estate firm Brookside Properties, said most of the real growth in jobs has been in Rutherford, Williamson and other counties, not Nashville. He said Davidson County doesn’t have good sites where a major corporation could relocate, and Metro’s rezoning process is too cumbersome.
"Nissan didn’t move to Nashville," Crabtree said. "Why is that? There wasn’t any place for them to go. The city needs to pay attention to this."
The region as a whole also will have to deal with how it moves people around, said Ed Cole, executive director of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee.
Cole said projections of the region’s growth over the next 25 years, with an additional 900,000 people moving to a 10-county area by 2035, would put Nashville on par with Denver or Seattle today. He said Middle Tennessee needs to start working to upgrade its mass transit system to prepare for that kind of population.
"We can have the infrastructure, if we start taking steps to get ready," he said.
Despite Nashville’s needs, Cole noted the city has name recognition that will continue to pay growth dividends.
"It’s a very attractive label," Cole said. "Nashville’s a place people have heard about. That identity helps, especially when we don’t have mountains or beaches."