Bartlett, Tennessee – Playing the Long Game

Abraham Lincoln once quipped, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”

Chopping, according to Lincoln, is easy. It’s the exciting, visible part. The focus is always on the tree and how quickly it falls. Rarely, does anyone consider the ax– or the time it took to sharpen it. But without all of the energy spent in preparation, the tree doesn’t fall in a timely fashion. It might not even fall. 

Bartlett, Tennessee, isn’t really felling trees these days. But they are sharpening their ax: they’ve got some big growth headed their way in the next few years.

The time to sharpen is now– because being constructed, just 30 minutes away, is Ford’s new Blue Oval. This $5.6 billion campus will create, produce, and recycle electric car batteries. The site will be the biggest Ford has, and is being built in tandem with another facility in Kentucky. Together, these will provide 11,000 new jobs. 

The Perfect Fit

There is reason to be excited. Blue Oval will bring in a huge influx of new people- who will need places to live. Places to send their kids to school. Places to spend their money.

And Bartlett is the perfect place for it. Located in the geographical center of Shelby County, Bartlett is just 30 minutes outside of Memphis. With a population of 60,000, it is the 11th largest city in Tennessee. While they are considered a suburb of Memphis, Bartlett very much has its own identity. In fact, Bartlett has been listed in the top 100 places to live by both CNN and Money Magazine. 

“If you’re looking for a great community to call home, you will find that in Bartlett,” Bartlett Chief Administrative Officer, Steve Sones, states. “We’ve got big city amenities but with that small town feel… The first thing that you might be attracted to would be our school system. And then you ultimately end up staying here because it’s a safe place to live and it’s a good place to raise a family.”

One unique thing about Bartlett is the fact that it has its own municipal school system, breaking from the county back in 2014. The Bartlett City School District now has 11 schools. In April, it received the Best Communities in Music Education designation from the NAMM Foundation for its outstanding commitment to music education. 

After extensive renovations to the tune of $60 million, the award-winning Bartlett High School boasts a new 2,500 seat sports facility along with a new 1,000 seat theater, the Panther Playhouse. “The school is phenomenal,” Sones touts. “It’s an amazing draw.” 

Another draw for Bartlett is their 29 parks. Freeman Park is one of their largest, at 100 acres. There’s a new pavilion there, where the Farmer’s Market sets up shop. It’s also the home stadium for the high school’s baseball and softball teams. “We have a lot of outdoor activities– a lot of areas for people to go. Especially this time of year: it’s really nice here.”

Bartlett is also home to the Bartlett Performing Arts Center. They host a myriad of events throughout the year, including outdoor concerts down by the lake. “They have lots of music. Lots of theater– both outside theater coming in and then internal theater, too,” Sones states. They help foster younger talent by working with local students in productions and in summer programming. “It’s one of those offerings that people want,” Sones attests. “I think it helps you become a more diverse community– and that’s really what you are striving to do.” 

Bartlett’s new branding campaign, Hometown Proud, encompasses all of this. “I think at the end,” Sones muses, “you want people to be proud to call Bartlett their hometown. You want to create and offer the amenities, the services, and the opportunities that are not only going to make them feel at home today but make tomorrow a little bit better. And hopefully, make the future brighter for the city.” 

Lacing Up

It’s that bright future that Sones is focused on right now. “Economic and community development is a huge deal,” he asserts. “I mean, everything else is contingent upon that.”

Bartlett just launched an economic development dashboard in partnership with the Bartlett Area Chamber of Commerce. “It essentially allows you to navigate any parcel  that we have. If you’re looking to start a business here, we literally could walk you through the entire process, with this web portal.”

The dashboard will be a helpful tool not only for those looking to buy a home in Bartlett, but more importantly, Sones explains, for retail recruitment. “We wanted to focus on trying to get our retail up. The point here would be to have everything encapsulated in this city so that you don’t have to leave Bartlett. We’ve got everything that you would want here,” he continues. “We are a full service city… not only do we have a great school system, but we have phenomenal services and a good local hospital. We’ve got all the needs that you would really want.” 

Partnerships are vital to a growing city. Barlett recently started working with Jones Aur, a commercial realty company. They are teaming up to recruit new businesses to come to Bartlett. In addition, they are looking to assist local businesses, too, that may need fixing up. “They are a young, energetic team,” comments Sones. “We are hopeful that they can really help us in recruiting new retail options here for our citizens.” 

Stretching Out 

The partnerships are the visible renderings of
growth preparedness. But also helping to lead the way are some major infrastructure projects, including some repairs to their sewer system throughout the city. The work, Sones indicates, is crucial: “It will open up a huge amount of parcels, adjacent to a very busy area, along the Highway 64 corridor. We think it could open up a whole lot of opportunities for retail and commercial growth. In addition, this could help expand our industrial offerings and hopefully increase manufacturing jobs.”

One of those opportunities is the Union Depot Development, created by Grant Homes, which is currently underway. This $160 million, mixed-use development will have 158 single family homes, 92 townhouses, 62 lofts, 334 flats, as well as some commercial parcels. “It’s a big, big centerpiece,” Sones says, that runs right through a large artery within the city. “I think it will be especially beneficial,” he adds. 

Workforce development is also beneficial to a city. Bartlett, after all, is home to an industrial park that houses the 2nd largest medical device conglomerate in the United States. Bartlett is hoping to capitalize on that business– and those relationships– to help prepare young workers. The plan is to utilize the local Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT), in Bartlett, as well. “The goal,” Sones explains, “is to take our high school, take the members of our industrial park, and take the members of TCAT, and make connections. To bridge that gap so we could have high school kids getting college credit for certification programs that could transition into TCAT. And hopefully, end up having a job with a nice salary– right here in their hometown of Bartlett.”

Sones believes all of these things– the sewer, the housing, the economic development– are all helping to pave the way for Bartlett’s future. “With Blue Oval coming in, and with the influx of potential jobs, residential growth is something we have to focus on,” Sones shares. “We want to grow the city to support what’s coming.” 

The Training Plan 

This is a tall order for any leader. But it’s even more interesting for Bartlett. You see, after decades under the same veteran leadership, a couple of new guys took over in January, including Sones. Both Mayor David Parsons and Sones aren’t new to Bartlett– both grew up here and have had careers in other fields. But they are new to these city government roles. They are smart, though. They are also connected. They certainly know Bartlett. And boy, do they love it. They embody Hometown Proud

Back around Thanksgiving, Mayor-Elect Parsons approached Sones about joining him in leadership in Bartlett. Sones had been in law enforcement his entire life. After growing up in Bartlett, he began a career in law enforcement as a jailer with the Bartlett Police Department. Over the next 21 years, he ascended to the rank of Assistant Police Chief and recently retired his badge to serve his city in another capacity: as Bartlett’s Chief Administrative Officer. 

His years in the police force, he believes, helped to prepare him for this role. “My office was a police car, driving these streets every day, so I know what’s out there,” he contends. In his role as Assistant Police Chief, he worked with various department directors. He knows the people, the streets, and the neighborhoods. 

“It’s been good,” he says. “And it’s been challenging. I just left a meeting with engineering. Who would have thought I’d talk this much about sewers?” he laughs. “You name it and we are talking about it. You have to be a jack of all trades but a master of none, ya know?”

Pounding the Pavement

In their first 100 days on the job, they’ve created a mission statement and layed out their areas of focus. Next steps include community surveys and focus groups. All of that will help to develop their strategic plan that will guide their administration. “I think the biggest priorities for us are developing that long term plan for the city,” he continues. “That’s an important part of what we are doing.”

Equally important is the continual question of what can spark more growth? “And I think those are some of the tough conversations we’re having right now,” reveals Sones, “to figure out what we can do and what role we could play in getting that going.”

Sones is excited about what is coming for Bartlett. “We have great services here,” Sones states. But he wants to develop and enhance their amenities, too: shopping, eating, the arts, etc. “Our goal is to make everything as good as we possibly can– to really magnify that hometown feeling that we believe our community embodies,” he adds.

Race Day

Abraham Lincoln was known for his preparation. It was actually one of his keys to success. 

Preparation, though, isn’t glamorous work. It’s like sharpening the ax: it requires energy and time. It requires focus. It requires perseverance.

Preparation is for the long game. It’s knowing that the training you do now will pay off on race day. 

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Sones believes. “It’s probably going to take a minute until we see the fruits of our labor– to see how successful it is. I wish we could fast forward about two years and see all these things come to fruition. I think we’ll be happy with the end result,” he predicts. “I think we’ll be really happy.”


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