As a kid, Mickey Bulger, Carterville, remembers watching as builders expanded the then-two-lane U.S. Highway 71, now Missouri 171, from Carthage to Webb City to a four-lane highway.

JOPLIN — As a kid, Mickey Bulger, Carterville, remembers watching as builders expanded the then-two-lane U.S. Highway 71, now Missouri 171, from Carthage to Webb City to a four-lane highway.

Bulger knew his 5-year-old grandson, Kelson Bulger-Dart, was too young to understand what he was watching, but he wanted him to have the memory of being a part of history.

That's why he brought the youngster to Wednesday's ceremony at Joplin's East Middle School marking the re-designation of U.S. Highway 71 to Interstate 49.

"He's pretty smart and I think he doesn't quite understand fully what's going on, but I explained it to him on the way here from pre-school, and I've told him this will be something that he'll remember eventually for the rest of his life," Mickey Bulger said. "I thought it was a piece of history. Even though he's 5 years old and he might not understand it right now, later on I'll keep this memorabilia and I'll take some pictures of him and I here. Eventually he'll recognize what this is."

Hundreds of people, coming from Louisiana and Arkansas and the Kansas City area, filled the temporary South Middle School Gymnasium as Missouri Department of Transportation officials and federal officials spoke about the importance of adding more than 180 miles to the interstate highway system.

Rudy Farber, Neosho, chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, was one of those in attendance.

"Let me put it this way, if you can't get excited about this you can't get excited about anything," Farber said. "When we're doing 185 miles of interstate and a project that has been on the table for the better part of 50 years and seeing its completion, it's really pleasing to me and it ought to be pleasing to the driving public."

In the past two years, MoDOT has spent more than $50 million building 11 interchanges, five overpasses and two outer roads in Barton, Vernon, Bates and Cass counties to bring the highway from Carthage to Harrisonville to interstate status.

Prior to that, from 1994 to 2007, MoDOT built an entirely new highway, built to interstate standards, from I-44 east of Joplin to Pineville.

Victor Mendez, administrator at the Federal Highway Administration in Washington, said a total of $315 million was spent on the highway, $250 million from the federal government.

"Now existing businesses in this area have access to the entire U.S.," Mendez said. "That trade and commerce, it has to flow through the entire U.S. so not only will you be attracting new businesses, you will be, hopefully, growing your existing businesses. One thing we don't talk a whole lot about is how do you tap into the tourism industry and interstates are key in that. If you're going to travel to visit state parks or monuments and you're near an interstate, you can get there pretty quickly and in a safe manner."

Gib Garrow, Neosho Area Chamber of Commerce economic development director, said businesses he talks to want to be close to an interstate, and being close to an intersection between two interstates is an even bigger draw.

"Most of the time when they look and they have a national or international client that says I want to intersect with two interstates, they don't usually dig down below that," Garrow said. "If it's Interstate 44 and it happens to intersect with a four-lane highway, that's not that big a deal. When you put the sign up and it's now two interstates crossing, they say it makes all the difference in the world."

Carthage Chamber of Commerce President Mark Elliff said the name change will help all the economic developers along the west edge of Missouri market themselves.

"Just the name change going to an interstate status automatically will allow the opportunity to get more interest from companies that are wanting to move into the area," Elliff said. "We're about five miles from Interstate 44 with Interstate 49 running right across we're really at the crossroads. We've got rail service that comes into the community that's available so we've got a lot of advantages to offer."

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt and Mendez helped honor Mel Walbridge, a Joplin resident who has been pushing a variety of transportation improvements in Southwest Missouri for decades.

MoDOT also honored Joe Mickes, who could not attend, Kent Stalcup and Richard Walter, previous chief engineers for the Southwest Missouri District, and Becky Baltz, the current chief engineer for the area for their work on the highway.

MoDOT crews were out in force on Wednesday turning pre-placed mile-marker signs to face traffic and uncovering the I-49 shields on the signs up and down the 185-mile stretch of highway.