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Former state economic development leader busy in Vicksburg

A Mississippi Business Journal Q&A

VICKSBURG – Jimmy Heidel has disproved the adage “you can’t go home again.”

Heidel left Vicksburg and Warren County as head of the area’s economic development efforts almost a decade ago to become the executive director of the statewide Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development (now the Mississippi Development Authority). Many feel, especially in the economic development community, the “Mississippi Miracle” of the 1990s owes much to Heidel’s leadership.

Now Heidel, after resigning his state post for health reasons about a year ago, is back in Vicksburg where he serves as executive director of the Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce and director of both the Vicksburg-Warren County Economic Development Foundation and the Warren County Port Commission.

Recently, the Mississippi Business Journal caught up with Heidel and asked him about the past year, plans for this year and beyond and where he feels the strengths and weaknesses of the community lie.

Mississippi Business Journal: Tell us about the transition from MDECD to Vicksburg/Warren County. What have been the challenges of going from a statewide organization back to a community-focused economic development effort?

Jimmy Heidel: On the state level, obviously, I was dealing with every city and county in the state. It was hard work, fast-paced. I carried a lot of work home. I was always on the road. You didn’t have time to concentrate on an issue or a specific community because you had to move on to the next item or town.

It’s been refreshing to able to concentrate on one community and work on projects just for that community. It gives you a perspective you lose on the state level. There’s still a lot to do, and I’ve had to hone some skills. But it’s slower paced – and very rewarding. I just appreciate the opportunity I’ve been afforded.

MBJ: Give us a report card on 2000. What are some accomplishments you found particularly gratifying?

JH: We have a $140-million power plant under construction. We saw nine expansions of existing industries in the area. The widening of the river channel leading into the park has been funded and is underway, and will allow the port to accept traffic four-barges wide.

Our interpretive museum on the river is back on track, as well as our business incubator, which we need for business start-ups. And the National Park Service has agreed to purchase the Pemberton House to address the need to do more on the African American participation in the (Civil) War.

We’ve also received a promise from the Mississippi Department of Transportation to build a road from (U.S.) 61 Bypass straight to the port. That is scheduled to begin in 2003. And we’ve also received a commitment to six-lane I-20 and add new frontage roads in the next 10 years.

Rail traffic remains a strength. It has increased by 30%, with another 30% increase expected. And we are working with AmTrak to add a stop in Vicksburg in the next two years.

MBJ: What are some things high on the wish list for 2001?

JH: We want to develop an additional 80 acres at the port. We’ve had companies interested in the port, but no available space. We plan on spending about $1 million on the port this year. And we are expecting to build a rail line into our industrial park on Interstate 20.

We also want to land some Nissan suppliers. We’re 40 minutes from the plant and have excellent transportation infrastructure in place. We’ve already had contact with suppliers, and I believe we’re in a great position to see suppliers in our area.

One of the best things that happened last year that is carrying over to this year is working on forming a coalition or alliance between all organizations in the area, such as the Main Street program, the Economic Development Foundation, the Port Commission and the Downtown Association. A recent survey found that we had great volunteers and organizations, but we didn’t communicate well. We are having our last meeting on Jan. 29 to finalize the details. We hope to meet on a regular basis and come up with about five or six projects to work on each year.

MBJ: Give us a run down on the various segments of the area’s economy. What areas do you see ripe for growth?

JH: Tourism remains strong, and we’re looking for it to grow. Manufacturing remains strong, as well, with companies such as International Paper, Cooper Lighting, Tyson Foods, Anderson-Tully and Ergon seeing expansions.

As far as retail goes, downtown, the mall and the outlet mall continue to do well. And a brand new hospital, the largest publicly-owned hospital in the U.S., is being built on (U.S.) 61, and has received approval to add 40 more beds.

MBJ: What are some issues you would like to see addressed that are potential hindrances to economic development?

JH: We have a real need for affordable housing. We are currently working with contractors, trying to get old homes torn down and new ones built.

MBJ: What’s your long-range vision for the city and county?

JH: As far as a five-year plan goes, I would like to see us explore the merging of county and city government. It was being discussed when I was here before, and it is being explored again.

We have one city, one county. We have a lot of duplication. Once again, it’s about communication and being more effective and efficient.

We also have to keep working to enhance our schools. We currently have a national search underway for a new superintendent of education.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.


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