Henderson’s small town status doesn’t mean Mayor Bobby King doesn’t dream big

By Linda Bryant

Economic development is a front-burner concern for virtually all towns and cities in Tennessee, but when a municipality is small it’s often much harder to attract new companies and retain existing businesses.

Thanks in large part to the leadership of Mayor Bobby King, Henderson, a town of about 6,500 in West Tennessee, is finding ways to shine as an economic generator and small town with a high quality of life.

As Tennessee celebrates its second annual Rural Mayor’s Day on Oct. 1, King stands tall as a fitting example of a small-town mayor who’s impacting his community in recognizable — and often profound — ways.

Rural Mayor’s Day, passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2017, is designed to honor and recognize Tennessee’s small-town mayors for their hard work and dedication, which all too often go unnoticed.

King has a lot of experience in meeting hard challenges and turning difficult situations around. In 2005, while working for the U.S. Marshal’s office in Memphis, he was in a horrific car accident and lost his left arm and right foot. His life was forever changed, and recovering from the accident presented King with obstacles and difficulties that were arduous and painful.

Yet, coming to terms with what at the time seemed like an insurmountable personal tragedy and learning how to adjust to life in a new way gave King the tools he needed to address new and different challenges.

Listen to a constituent complain about potholes? No problem.

Figure out a way to attract young entrepreneurs to a small Tennessee town? Difficult, yes, but not impossible.
Under King’s leadership, Henderson became the first “Gig City” — an area that offers ultra-fast gigabit fiber services — in West Tennessee.
Other amenities in Henderson have flourished in the past 10 years. The city’s park system has been greatly enhanced and expanded, downtown Henderson is in the middle of a Renaissance, and the city’s school system has gotten better and better.

Emily Johnson, executive director of the Chester County Chamber of Commerce, says King’s leadership carries with it an infectious “can-do” attitude.
“Mayor King never says, “I can’t do it,” Johnson said. “I’ve worked with him for nine-plus years, and I have never heard him be negative about a new idea. After all he’s been through in life I’ve never even heard him complain. He doesn’t seem to let anything get him down or bother him. He’s very dedicated and really focused on making life better for our residents. He’s an inspiration.”

“I feel like he’s really been instrumental in carving out a unique identity for our small community,” Johnson continued. “Having things like free high-speed wi-fi, beautiful parks and good schools really do help us to stand out. They help us remain proud of Henderson and willing to do the hard work to make sure it continues to thrive.”
King keeps looking to the future, and he knows from experience that once people discover Henderson and all it has to offer, that good things can happen.
He’s especially keen on continuing to work with Freed-Hardeman University, a private liberal arts college with an enrollment of about 2,500, which is located in downtown Henderson.

“Having such a dynamic school be such an integral part of Henderson is just something most other towns don’t usually have,” he said. “And it’s helping us in our efforts to revitalize downtown. A lot of the students and/or millennials when they move here they want something close that’s in walking distance.”
King is also confident that Henderson will continue to make progress because of the spirit and generosity of the residents.
“People here are always ready to volunteer to help to make our town strong,” he said.

TT&C: Tell me about your background. Did you grow up in the region? Where did you go to school?
BK: I grew up in Henderson. My father was a family physician in town for four decades, and my mother was a nurse, who worked for him taking care of our neighbors. My siblings and I understood how important it was to love and serve your community from the time we were young. My education included Chester County High School, Middle Tennessee State University, and the FBI National Academy.
My wife Teresa and I have been married since 1980. We have four children and four grandchildren. Even before she began serving as first lady of Henderson, she was giving long hours of service to making our region better. She is known as the one who makes things happen, tirelessly planning and handling details — often behind the scenes — to serve our community.
With our parents’ occupations, our family was always heavily involved in community and our neighbors’ lives, so public service was modeled for my siblings and me. Following MTSU, I served in the Chester County Sheriff’s Department for 10 years. I attended the FBI National Academy while I was there and became a U.S. Marshal following my work with the sheriff’s office. That often involved long hours out of town but provided great opportunities for learning and growth during my 19 years there. I also served as an alderman for the city of Henderson for eight years.

TT&C: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced – personal, political or both?
BK: My biggest challenge was the loss of my arm and leg. While working for the U.S. Marshal service in 2005, I had a car accident. I woke from a coma at The Med [Regional Medical Center at Memphis] to find out I had lost my left arm and my right leg below the knee from injuries sustained in the accident. I was at The Med and in rehab for more than 10 weeks. That provided a defining life juncture for me, and I knew I could get on with dying or get on with living. I chose to get on with living. During that time, I learned what the support of family and community means in getting you through tough situations. Following that experience that ended my time as a U.S. Marshal, I saw the opportunity to serve our community as city mayor, following the announcement of Mayor Eddy Patterson’s retirement.

TT&C: You had a long career in law enforcement. How did you get involved in local politics?
BK: I first ran as city alderman and got elected and served two terms. In 2004, I didn’t run again because I was promoted to supervisor, and I had to work out of the Memphis office. My term on the council was from 1994 to 2002. In 2008, I was elected mayor in August and started serving in September. Currently, I have two more years on my third term. I always planned to run for public office after I retired from the U.S. Marshall service. I just didn’t know when it would be. It just happened a lot quicker than I thought it would because of my accident.

TT&C: How did being a U.S. Marshal prepare you for being a mayor?
BK: Being a supervisory deputy marshal in the fugitive section gave me experience in managing employees and managing budgets. It also provided opportunities for setting priorities, how to remain focused and calm, and how to solve problems.

TT&C: As a small rural town, what are some of the biggest challenges and issues you’re facing in Henderson?
BK: We understand that we have to continually focus on the changing demands of the workforce. We need to be flexible in meeting those needs to help not only our young people but also our current workforce. We need to make sure they have the skills they need to be excellent employees. This is important in another area that’s vital to us in Henderson — providing work opportunities at home, so fewer of our residents have to leave the county for daily work. Finally, we all hear about brain drain, and we are constantly looking for ways to keep those whom we’ve trained and educated to use their talents to make their home community better instead of having to move to another community to find the employment they want.
Our close proximity to Jackson, which has 55,000 to 75,000 people, is a challenge. We’re only about 15 miles from Jackson. It’s nice to have Jackson so close, but we have about 3,500 people that leave the county every day to go to work in Jackson. We’d like to have job opportunities for more people to stay here and work. We are making progress. There are more jobs available for people here.

TT&C: There are 346 municipalities in the state of Tennessee? What sets Henderson apart as a community and a place to live?
BK: While we enjoy the quality of life of a small town, we are not stagnant. There is a vibrancy and energy here, along with benefits of less traffic and friendly neighbors. We are fortunate that our residents can go from preschool through a doctorate on our Main Street, thanks to quality private preschools/child care, public schools and Freed-Hardeman University. We have involved residents who create and build programs that make our life here even better — from Henderson Arts Commission to supporting the parks to the Exchange Club Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse.
Our small size is also an asset; we are flexible in being able to work together and address issues quickly without bureaucracy or power struggles. We also have a recycling program that we coordinate with the county. Chester County Solid Waste and Recycling offers services that are not found other places in our region, and we offer a recycling pick-up program in the city to make it simple for residents to participate. We are one of the only counties in the state that grew a little over 11 percent last year. And I’d say in the future we will grow to another 7 or 8 percent.

TT&C: You have ultra-high-speed internet in Henderson, which is 100 times faster than today’s basic broadband. This is pretty unusual for a small town. Can you explain how this happened, and why it’s important?
BK: It’s important in being able to attract and keep entrepreneurs and businesses that rely on it every day. It’s also important for residents when it comes to their quality of life. Aeneas [an independent telecommunications company based in Jackson] wanted to expand into rural areas around Madison County, and they approached us in addition to other rural areas. We did everything we could quickly [providing easements, etc.] to make that project happen. We also wanted to offer it in our city parks and industrial parks.
Bringing in high speed internet has helped tremendously. We’ve also worked to enhance our city parks. We were awarded two park grants to develop walking trails and other amenities. We’re also really proud of our historic downtown. We received grants to redo the sidewalks and street lighting downtown to increase accessibility. We are very proud of those accomplishments. During that time the county received the same grant to remodel around their courthouse. We are also revitalizing our downtown.

TT&C: How do you attract business, industry and more residents to Henderson?
BK: We provide a quality of life that makes the owners and employees want to live here, and we work closely with our chamber of commerce, county and state partners to communicate, meet needs, look for opportunities and be ready to respond to requests. We have several entrepreneurs who have purposefully chosen Henderson to begin and build their businesses: 8th Day Software, Bramblett Group, Oliver’s, and Southern Chic, which is a previous Tennessee Small Business of the Year. Arvin Sango also has opened during my tenure as mayor.
A huge aspect of our economic development and growth has been supporting the success of our existing businesses and industry. All of our long-term businesses and industries have expanded buildings, purchased new equipment and/or added employees. That growth is as important as attracting new businesses and shows those considering locating here that we will be committed to their long-term success, too.
We are not a town where you’re going to see big Walmarts. What we’re trying to do is welcome entrepreneurs. We attract people who can do their business from anywhere via the internet. We are working with the university on a joint program. The university has had a lot of alumni who have moved away. We want those people to come back.
We’re attracting growth because of the high-speed internet and because we have a really good school system. We have a slogan that says ‘PreK to Doctorate on Main Street.’ We are kind of unique because on the east end we have a junior high, elementary school, middle school and high school on Main Street. They are all less than half a mile apart and are all side by side on Main Street. Then about a half a mile further down we have a four-year university where you can get your doctorate degree. I think that’s something we take for granted here sometimes. I sat with a group of other mayors and talked about the things we want in our towns and cities — such as a river running through the city — and one of the mayors turned to me and said: “You have got something we would really like: a four-year university in your downtown.” I told him not only do we have a four-year university in our downtown but Freed-Hardeman University won the national women’s basketball championship!

TT&C: What is a typical day like for a full-time small-town mayor?
BK: It’s very diverse when it comes to what you do. A resident could walk in the door and complain about a pothole in front of their house or about a speeding ticket, or you might be working with state partners on a grant. I enjoy all aspects.

TT&C: How do you deal with conflicts and differences of opinion? Do you have an overriding philosophy or approach to leadership?
BK: It’s important to encourage and allow people to voice their opinions, to have an open mind and listen to them and to understand the needs they see in your community. The more controversial the issue, the more transparent I try to be and the more time I try to give for people to voice their opinions before decisions are made. I try to figure out how we can make ideas people present happen instead of automatically saying no. We may not be able to get everyone’s dreams accomplished, but we can at least consider what could happen and explore ideas.

TT&C: Assuming there’s more need to get things done in the city than there is money to pay for all those needs, how do you figure out what the highest priorities are?
BK: Our mission is to improve the quality of life for the residents of the city of Henderson. Our aldermen and staff work together to make sure that every decision focuses on our mission statement. Additionally, volunteers and nonprofits play a huge role in our quality of life and make things happen outside of our budget.

TT&C: How does Henderson support its young people?
BK: Our residents are interested in our young people from preschool through school through college degrees. We have a strong group of volunteers who work with parks, youth sports, and children’s fine art programs, and we focus on supporting their work, passion and talents serving our children. We focus on providing the infrastructure and encouraging their work through volunteer groups, like the Henderson Arts Commission, scouts, etc. We also financially support the REDI program through Southwest Tennessee Development District to help students go to college. We celebrate and support our schools and invest in our parks, providing great places to walk, ride bikes, play and spend time away from screens and technology.

TT&C: Can you name a couple of life lessons you’ve learned from being mayor?
BK: Pay attention to what residents need to make their life better. For example, once we had high-speed internet in city hall to improve our efficiency, we realized that a teenager was outside in the bushes trying to access it. That was a big lesson for me to make sure we were supplying what residents need, and we have made high-speed public access available in Sue Shelton White Park, and Gene Record Park.
Everything is not about me. Sometimes it’s important as a leader to let people do the work they love, get out of their way and support them where they need it to help them succeed. Our Chester T. Dog Park, the Henderson Arts Commission and countless other volunteer projects are strong because residents have taken ownership, and we support them.

TT&C: What interests, special causes or hobbies keep you busy outside of your job?
BK: I serve as a TSSAA supervisor/assignor for the Southwest Football Officials Association. This keeps me busy on Friday nights, evaluating crews who officiate high school football in Tennessee. I continue playing golf, and we have a great course in Chester County: Chickasaw Golf Course. And with my prosthetic golf arm, now I don’t hit the ball nearly as far out in the woods as I used to. I also enjoy time at the river with family and friends.

TT&C: In your personal life have you had any important mentors or influences?
BK: The three biggest influences have been my father, Dr. D.C. King, my football coach Tommy Moffitt, and Sheriff Eric Bell, who was my boss in my first job in law enforcement. Sheriff Bell was a very big influence in my law enforcement career. I looked up to all of them because of their integrity and honesty. All three of them believed in me and they all had an overall tremendous influence on me.