An Open Letter from Bari Beasley, President and CEO of the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County, TN
In the spring of 2017, after a nationwide search by the Board of Directors, I was offered and accepted the position of CEO of the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County in Franklin, Tennessee. It was an honor to be selected for this role, and I dreamed of using my skillset to serve our community.
When offered the job, the board specifically asked me to lead the effort in scaling this organization, mitigating risks, and ensuring the Heritage Foundation and its divisions would be viable for another 50 years. Why did the board want this? They wanted it because historic preservation is that important in Williamson County, especially as the county faces so much growth; so, I got to work.
Over these five and a half years, we have had success beyond anything I could have imagined. It is thanks to those around me who are committed to the growth and vision of the Heritage Foundation — our staff, board, volunteers, members, donors, and friends who have each contributed in their own ways.
During this time, we have updated the Heritage Foundation’s branding, achieved record-setting levels of corporate and individual giving, established a new educational symposium with internationally renowned speakers on historic preservation, played an integral role in advocating for the preservation of many historic structures and green space throughout Williamson County, and guided the organization through the process of purchasing and saving the Lee-Buckner Schoolhouse, the former O’More College of Design campus in downtown Franklin, and the former McConnell House.
True to the Foundation’s original charter, we have also created an Educator’s Institute for local teachers, reestablished the “Sites to Save” advocacy program, and formed a preservation and advocacy committee, inclusive of leaders throughout Williamson County. Our Downtown Franklin Association currently has over 200 members today to help sustain Franklin as one of “America’s Favorite Main Streets” for years to come. The Franklin Theatre, owned and operated by the Foundation, has diversified programming, hired an accomplished managing director, and paid off its mortgage in 2020.
On the horizon, Franklin Grove Estate & Gardens, the vision for the former O’More College of Design campus, will be a landmark adaptive reuse project for the 55-year-old nonprofit. Our board, staff, and community leaders cast a vision for this beautiful property, including an Innovation Center, Museum of Art, Lee-Buckner Schoolhouse, and stunning gardens. Today, approvals are almost complete; millions of dollars have been raised; the Innovation Center has opened, and the pending completion of Franklin Grove is a reality. Creating a community amenity through this historic property is a tax-free gift to the people of Franklin.
The former McConnell House, now fondly known as the History & Culture Center of Williamson County, is already open for events in downtown Franklin. Soon, the complete build-out of this space with immersive technology will make it another destination for both locals and visitors to historic Franklin to learn about the totality of the region’s history.
Through our collective work, we have doubled the Heritage Foundation’s net assets from $9 million in 2017 to $18 million in 2022. All of Franklin and Williamson County should share in this success. Your commitment to our community is what sustains the Heritage Foundation and makes this such a special place to live.
Conversely, recent sensationalist declarations and misinformation have been spread about the Heritage Foundation regarding Beechwood Hall. This has not only been an attempt to damage our Foundation, but a black eye in national media for our community – it is contrary to the Franklin way.
Inflammatory and false claims have been made that the Heritage Foundation accepted money from the owners of Beechwood Hall to keep us from advocating for this home. This could not be further from the truth, and it undermines both my integrity and the integrity of all associated with our organization.
Truthfully, the Beechwood Hall owners donated to the Heritage Foundation one time, years before they owned the property. For 55 years, historic property owners and preservation supporters have donated to the Heritage Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit, which is sustained by philanthropic giving. Their donation does not influence how we are approaching the Beechwood Hall project nor any other. The historic resource always comes first.
The Heritage Foundation is working diligently to prepare a preservation plan for Beechwood Hall that the property owners will review early in the new year. We are the only ones in close communication with the owners. As always, we are approaching this with professionalism, presenting a robust preservation plan with constructive solutions for the owners’ consideration.
We do not have a crystal ball to know what the outcome will be for this property, as that is only in the hands of the property owners, but the best chance of its preservation rests with the team having civil discourse and bringing solutions to the table for analysis. That team is at the Heritage Foundation.
Despite these salacious lies and misinformation working to damage our preservation efforts and organization, the Foundation is strong and vibrant in every measurable category for a nonprofit.
One of my favorite professors from graduate school advised me over 20 years ago to pursue a career in nonprofits. I didn’t understand at that time why, but years later I finally understood. Over time, I realized that there is nothing more worthwhile professionally than to work alongside a community to advance a noble mission that has an impact not only on today but also on future generations. Such is the case with the Heritage Foundation. So, despite the challenges, it is my joy and privilege each day to serve our community as the CEO of the Heritage Foundation.
Moving forward, our team will remain steadfast and continue to deliver on the Foundation’s mission with integrity, class, grassroots advocacy, and innovative programming as we save the places and stories that matter in Williamson County. For more information about the organization and its work, please visit WilliamsonHeritage.org. For information specifically related to the Beechwood Hall project, please visit https://williamsonheritage.org/beechwoodhall/.