BOLIVAR, Tenn. — Ignoring the din of logging trucks rolling by, Calvin Howell chews a cigar and walks the sidewalk across from the Hardeman County Courthouse, peering into the empty storefronts of a few buildings he owns.
“This is going to be a restaurant. It’s designed to be a restaurant… ,” says Howell, 65, who owns a real estate and investment firm. “Our buildings are occupant-ready.”
This community 65 miles east of Memphis is poised for growth, say local leaders, who tout the quaint town square, bucolic scenery and safe, family-friendly environment. But growth so far has eluded Hardeman County, which has lost about 7 percent of its population since 2010 and was reeling even before then.
As local mortgage sales recruiter Sheila Morelli put it, “Everything just dried up and went away.”
The struggles of Bolivar and Hardeman underscore a broader, more intractable trend to be found in the latest census estimates: If West Tennessee were a state unto itself, it would be shrinking.
The estimates show that the part of the state west of the Tennessee River, including Memphis and Shelby County, lost nearly 1,200 residents between 2010 and 2016, leaving a total population of just over 1.56 million. Of the 21 counties in the region, 15 experienced declines.
The problems of West Tennessee contrast sharply with the relative growth and prosperity spreading across other parts of the state. During the same six-year period, Middle and East Tennessee combined to attract more than 305,000 new residents, and their populations increased by about 9.4 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively.
The growth in Middle Tennessee isn’t limited to Davidson County, which added more than 6,000 residents from 2015 to 2016 alone. Smaller outlying counties such as Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson and Wilson each have experienced gains of up to 4,000 to 10,000 people a year.
East Tennessee also sustained healthy growth despite declines in the Tri-Cities area and Upper East Tennessee, which have been hard hit by losses in manufacturing and mining jobs. Hamilton and Knox counties each added more than 20,000 residents between 2010 and 2016, while Blount, Bradley and Sevier counties increased by 4,500 to 6,500 people.
In West Tennessee, Hardeman County suffered the largest population loss, declining 6.7 percent from 27,253 in the 2010 census to 25,435 last year. But other counties, including Haywood, Obion and Weakley, saw their populations fall by about 4 percent to 5 percent during the six-year period.
Even counties like Dyer and Madison, which in the past enjoyed success in luring industries, are stagnating. And although the three Tennessee counties in the Memphis metropolitan area had modest overall gains between 2010 and 2016, Shelby lost population during each of the past three years, while Tipton has declined two years in a row.
“I’m not surprised,” University of Memphis professor emeritus of economics David Ciscel said of the population figures.
The Memphis metro area recovered very slowly from the Great Recession, Ciscel said, while the rest of West Tennessee has suffered from the economic atrophy afflicting rural areas across much of the nation.
“Where we happen to have population gains, it’s from natural growth — people having babies,” he said.
“We’re not seeing the kind of growth that draws people from other parts of the country.”
The area’s troubles aren’t the result of neglect by state government, says Ted Townsend, deputy commissioner and chief operating officer of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. Since Gov. Bill Haslam took office six years ago, the department has funneled $160 million in grants to lure tourism and businesses to West Tennessee, or 42 percent of the total statewide, he said.
Much of the department’s focus has been on developing and marketing the Memphis Regional Megasite, a prospective location near the Fayette-Haywood county line designed for automotive, aerospace, defense and other industries, Townsend said.
The megasite, located about 20 miles from Hardeman County’s western edge, could boost the economy of the Bolivar area, which never fully recovered from the loss during the past few decades of two major employers — Harman Automotive, which made car mirrors and other products, and the Armira Corp. tannery. Each employed several hundred people.
The city also suffered from a significant downsizing over the years at the Western Mental Health Institute, a state facility dating back to 1889.
It’s a familiar problem across West Tennessee, where the number of jobs fell by 0.5 percent during the 12 months ending in June of last year and the labor force shrank by 1.6 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to a report earlier this year by the Boyd Center for Business & Economic Research at the University of Tennessee.
Kandy Shackelford, executive director of the Hardeman County Chamber of Commerce, said there are positive signs for the local economy. Elevator manufacturer thyssenkrupp employs more than 1,000 in its plant in Middleton, on the southern end of the county, and local officials have been able to recruit other industries in recent years, as well.
One problem, Shackelford said, is education.
“Every single industry in our county is at a point of growth, but we don’t have the skilled labor.”
Instead of staying home and finding jobs in the local area, about half of young adults leave the county after finishing school, local officials say. The reasons include a perceived lack of opportunity and a desire to live in bigger, more vibrant urban areas.
Morelli, the mortgage sales recruiter, said the eldest two of her four children already have moved out of state.
“For years, I’ve kind of encouraged my kids to leave,” she said.
Julian McTizic, 30, at one point thought he’d join the exodus from Bolivar, but instead he moved back to town after attending college in Nashville and went into the insurance business.
Just a few months ago, McTizic, the great-great-grandson of a sharecropper, was elected Bolivar’s first African-American mayor.
“This is a great place to raise a family,” he said, extolling the area’s potential. “We’re right at the edge of the runway, and I think you’re going to see great things once we get off the ground.”
McTizic and other leaders here predict a reversal in the trend of young people moving away. The natural amenities of the county, which include the Hatchie River, part of the state’s scenic rivers system, will draw tourists and people interested in outdoor recreation. And the low-stress, low-cost lifestyle will make the area even more attractive, they say.
Entrepreneurs like Karen Roberts are already banking on the future of Bolivar and Hardeman County. A Mississippi native who’s owned stores in Memphis, Roberts is busy refurbishing a building dating back to the early 19th century that will house the Hatchie River Trading Co. It specializes in luxury items, such as rare imports and goods handcrafted in West Tennessee.
“For 20 years, I’ve had a dream to move out here,” Roberts said.
She envisions craft breweries, distilleries and nice restaurants springing up in the area.
“It’s just an incredible place to live,” Roberts said. “It’s just a challenge to make a living.”
Morelli, too, is hopeful for a resurgence in the Bolivar area.
“This used to be a booming little town,” she said. “It’s sad to see the decline.”
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