HAZEL — Of all of the things involving the now seemingly imminent expansion of U.S. 641 South to four lanes between Murray and the Tennessee state line at Hazel, one of the biggest questions does not have an answer.
How will this affect Hazel and its worldwide reputation for attracting customers seeking antiques?
At this point, it is all speculation, but with most of the proposed routes taking the highway around the city, it does create concern that potential customers will just keep driving and not stop, while others say the increased traffic flow creates potential opportunity for stronger sales.
One person with a positive outlook is the city’s mayor, John “Scooter” Paschall.
“I think we’re going to be fine,” Paschall said back in February during a public meeting that the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet hosted at Hazel Baptist Church. “This is a destination city. It’s not something like small towns have, where all they’ve got is one post office and a grocery store and they get bypassed and kind of die out. We’ve got 10 to 12 viable antique stores, we’ve got a restaurant, our bank, two convenience stores. We’re going to be fine.
“I get that taking some of the traffic out of the city is probably not what you want as a business, but once everything gets going and mitigation gets going, we can get signage for the city, and what helps is that Hazel has been declared a national historic landmark, so that’s something to take into account. However, my belief is that if you take care of your business, and you’re a viable business, they’re going to find you.”
The antiques feature of this town of nearly 400 residents is something that could possibly keep Hazel from suffering the same fate as so many other towns bypassed by a major highway. Blue Moon Antiques owner Angela Lovett was watching Saturday as her store, along with all of the others lining 641 South downtown, was crowded with customers during what was billed as a March Madness business promotion throughout the city.
However, even on weekdays, she said she receives visitors from rather unusual places.
“We had people here (last Monday) from Australia,” Lovett said, then turning her thoughts to the 641 South situation. “It will go around Hazel and it will hurt the merchants here. If you talk to any store owners in Cadiz (in Trigg County), you can talk about what the bypass over there did to them. You don’t think it should be that way, but it will be.”
However, Lovett said she believes that despite the potential for hurting her business, the road is needed.
“641 is dangerous,” she said. “I have grandchildren that are in vehicles that drive up and down this road all of the time, and we need safety improvements on the road. So I’m of the opinion that whatever it takes, they need to do it. I wouldn’t take anything for anyone’s life, and a lot of people have died on that road.”
Mantiques owner Jim Cunningham said he is convinced that the highway bypassing Hazel will be very harmful. He believes the new highway should still go through Hazel.
“The problem is, if they bypass us, Kentucky doesn’t issue billboards very easily. So, No. 1, how do we get all of the proper billboards up, and No. 2, am I going to be at somebody’s whim where I’ve got to pay $700 a month for a billboard just to keep funneling all of the business in here?” Cunningham said. “Listen, when half of your traffic is still coming by the road and stopping with a compulsive buy at the end of the day or something like that, we’re going to be losing a lot of business.
“I think it’s going to be detrimental for the town, at least for the retail part of the town.”
The expansion of 641 South has been a hot topic in Murray-Calloway County for as many as 50 years, and has seemingly been on the verge of having dirt moved numerous times, only for plans to suddenly go wrong and for the project be pushed further and further down the priority totem pole. The certainty this project now appears to have of actually coming to fruition took hold in December, several months after both the Calloway County Fiscal Court and Murray City Council joined forces on drafting a resolution to pursue a federal grant, known as BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development).
Paschall said the fact that this project has come together so quickly is leaving little time for people to make important decisions about their futures.
“I think that’s one thing that has caught a lot of people off guard,” he said, himself the owner of the Blue & White Grill downtown. “This is not 10 years down the road. This is happening soon it appears, so it’s right upon you. The decisions you’ve got to make for your families is now.”
Ricky Walls sides with Paschall in believing that Hazel’s best days may be ahead of it. Walls owns Bella’s, which offers a wide variety of items made mostly by local artists, and he sees the expansion of the highway being a numbers game.
“Let’s say this puts 150 more drivers on the highway, which it’s going to be much bigger than that, but let’s just keep it at 150. If you get 10 more people to come from that increase, you’re going to be doing even more business,” Walls said.
He added that he believes the decrease in traffic downtown could encourage more visitors and potential buyers to look into what Hazel has to offer than the number that exists now.
“A lot of folks don’t come from Murray because of 641,” he said. “If we’ve got a good road, I think we’ll get more folks to come down here.
“We get people from all over the world here, and something I’ve noticed is that they like to walk around, but when you have a lot of traffic coming through (including semi trucks), they don’t tend to come all the way to my end of the street (Bella’s at one of the last businesses before the state line). I just watch them and then they’ll look and see people driving through who are supposed to be driving at about 35 mph (but drive faster). It scares them.”