TUPELO — After 52 years at the Community Development Foundation — president for 44 of them — Harry A. Martin announced last week that he will leave the Lee County organization this fall that he helped turn into one of the nation’s top economic development agencies.
“We’re all still in shock,” said Mande Miller, spokesperson for CDF. “We don’t want to believe he’s leaving.”
At a regularly scheduled board of directors meeting, Dr. Jeff Barber, CDF chairman, announced that the process had begun to select the next president. Search committee members include Larry Kirk, CEO of Hancock Fabrics, Aubrey Patterson, CEO of BancorpSouth, John W. Smith, CEO of The Peoples Bank & Trust Co., and Barber.
“I’d love to tell you it’s not so,” said Barber. “I’d love to say he’s staying, but 44 years as a leader and 52 years of service is an awful lot for one person to give to a company.”
U.S. Congressman Roger Wicker (R-Miss) said the CDF has been the driving force behind growth in the region for more than 50 years.
“Its progress is due in no small measure to Harry Martin,” Wicker said. “Harry deserves much credit for his ability to get so many people in the community involved in the CDF’s efforts to promote business and economic development. His strong leadership and vision for the future have led to more job opportunities and an improved way of life for all of us in north Mississippi.”
Last year, when Barber took over as CDF chairman, Martin, 74, told him of plans to vacate the post. Martin will leave the official capacity as president upon selection of a new president no later than Sept. 30. He will become president emeritus and has been asked to consider temporarily serving as a consultant and special project coordinator for CDF.
“He’s not using the term ‘retirement,’ nor are we,” Barber said. “We don’t know how long it will take because it will be a difficult position to fill. Under Harry’s tenure, 50 Fortune 500 or national/international companies and 226 manufacturing plants have located in Lee County. Economic development has brought a plethora of jobs and has made a tremendous impact in our community.”
CDF has been named a top 10 economic development agency in the U.S. three times, Barber said.
“It’s a tribute to the work he’s done,” Barber said. “We have been blessed with Harry Martin as our president for all of these years. It will be a very difficult job to fill, but we will take the time necessary to fill it with someone of his caliber.”
William Moran, plant manager of FMC-Tupelo, said Martin was primarily responsible for FMC Corporation locating in Tupelo in the early 1970s.
“He brought a delegation of FMC officials from our Chicago headquarters to Mississippi in 1973 and the Tupelo plant was completed in 1974,” Moran said. “FMC has continued operations in the Tupelo plant for 26 years, and we’re proud to be part of the successful legacy of CDF.”
The legacy Martin has provided northeast Mississippi is profound, Moran said.
“He is a visionary genius with extraordinary leadership capabilities,” he said. “Recently, on a visit to our FMC facility, he was commended for his lifetime achievements. When recognized for receiving three awards as president of one of the top 10 economic development organizations in the U. S., he commented that CDF is competing strongly for a fourth award! His CDF staff is highly professional and capable, and very devoted to continued success.”
The “path forward” following Martin’s decision to step down in September as president will certainly reflect his input, Moran said.
“I understand that he will be involved in the selection process for a successor and will continue to serve as a consultant to CDF,” he said. “His knowledge and understanding of the challenges facing continued successful economic development in Mississippi are vitally important. The complexion of the landscape continues to change. We will greatly enhance our future success in economic development if we carefully listen, learn and act effectively on the knowledge and wisdom of Mr. Martin.”
Under Martin’s guidance, the 1,152-member organization, with a $1 million-plus operating budget and a staff of 16, operates utilities and has “several million dollars worth of land in inventory for economic development,” Barber said.
“Mr. Martin is leaving the organization in a very strong financial position, with solid infrastructure and plenty of land in inventory to grow,” Barber said.
Before replacing Truman Brooks as CDF president in 1956, Martin, a Clarke County native, served as a teacher and agriculture county agent in Lee County.
A tribute to Martin is tentatively planned at CDF’s annual meeting in Tupelo on May 4.
Martin has declined requests from the media, including the Mississippi Business Journal, to comment.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1018.