Leaders from four counties in Southern Middle and West Tennessee met last week to discuss the relaunch of a road project that could help change the economic future of the entire region. Benton, Decatur, Henry, and Wayne counties were represented by local and state leaders, as well as representatives from national Tennessee leadership, at a meeting in Camden to discuss expanding State Highway 641.
The highway runs from northern Kentucky into Tennessee, running through Henry, Benton, Decatur and, lastly, into Wayne County where the highway dead ends. In 2007, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation to connect all county seats to the nearest Interstate highway with a four-lane road. Due to changes in the state’s political landscape, the project stalled and was never resumed.
Benton County Mayor Brett Lashlee has organized a task force comprised of area leaders in hopes of reviving the highway project. The group met in Camden last week to discuss initiating new plans to move forward with the expansion.
“This is a critical project for the future economic viability of our counties,” stated Mayor Lashlee. “We have known for decades what the expansion of US Highway 641 would mean to our rural counties in terms of growth; but sadly, it has not been a priority of state leadership which has had little to no local influence in recent years. This initial meeting was about overcoming that obstacle! It all starts with having an end-goal and a committed effort to see it through. Our aim is to combine the resources of four or more counties to work as a team in accomplishing this objective. I left our kickoff meeting with great enthusiasm and look forward to working with our neighboring counties as partners to achieve this goal.”
The implications of easy access will be a benefit for all surrounding counties as well. As growth for industry, tourism and recreation increases, residential areas will develop in bedroom communities across West Tennessee. The project is particularly critical for Wayne and Hardin Counties which have long been land-locked with no access to a major thoroughfare.
“I am very optimistic regarding the two-lane expansion of Highway 641 which will provide accessibility from Kentucky to Alabama right through Wayne County,” said Wayne County Commissioner Sherrie Powers. “The road will boost the economy of our county and will improve the value of properties nearby Highway 641. This new road will increase the number of visitors traveling through Wayne County, improving our tax revenue, which will help to lift the burden on property owners. Also, with the price of fuel going up every day, and no end in sight, reducing the time and distance it takes to travel will be a real benefit.”
“The expansion of Highway 641 is an essential part of infrastructure needed for the growth of rural West Tennessee. It will create a major North-South corridor that will allow commercial traffic to easily access communities, such as those in Henry County, that are not located directly on the I-40 route,” said John Ridgeway, Mayor of Henry County. “It will help with tourism, economic development and quality of life for decades to come. The residents of Henry County strongly support the expansion of Highway 641.”
Southern Middle and rural West Tennessee lag behind the other sections of the state in both industrial and residential growth. The exodus of small to mid-size factories during the 1970-80s left many rural communities reeling from a lack of jobs. This caused local populations to immigrate toward larger industrial areas, such as Jackson, Dickson, and Nashville. Growth in those areas has boomed while neighboring rural areas have struggled to maintain basic services for its residents.
“This highway expansion could be the key to a breakthrough for our county’s future,” stated Decatur County Commissioner April Barrett. “By expanding Highway 641, all of the counties along the Tennessee River will have a better and more direct access to Interstate 40. This brings a new dimension in opportunities for industrial growth in rural Tennessee.”
The area has missed opportunities that have been steered toward East and Middle Tennessee for decades. In the aftermath of NAFTA, rural communities were left in a perpetual cycle of population loss or stagnation. These population shifts were then used in reasoning against funding better highways into lower populated areas. Focusing on infrastructure, such as highways, utilities and broadband access will put the rural Tennessee regions into a more favorable position for industrial growth, as well as residential and resort investments.