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Surprise selection seems near-perfect fit

Meridian’s EMBDC has new chief

MERIDIAN — When the news broke last November that Meridian was searching for a new CEO for the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation (EMBDC), many thought, “Again?”

This would be the fifth president (not counting three interims) since 1986 for the area’s economic and community development organization. Tenure for those holding the office had ranged from one year to five years. The organization itself had gone through two transformations.

Bruce Martin is vice chairman of the EMBDC, and he and chairman Glen Deweese apparently recalled the old adage of looking for diamonds in their own backyard to fill the leadership post. They had their eyes on Wade Jones, division manager for Mississippi Power Company for the past three years.

It was evident that the 45-year-old Jones had a bright future with MPC, a division of the Southern Company, one of the nation’s premier utility companies. During his 14-year career with the firm, Jones had steadily advanced from legislative representative, then to Biloxi division manager and then to his Meridian position.

But prior to that, he had been an economic developer with the Delta Council and the Jackson Chamber of Commerce. As a result, Jones’ advice and experience had been invaluable as a member of the EMBDC’s executive committee.

Jones recalled a meeting in Martin’s Meyer & Rosenbaum insurance office when they and Deweese were discussing EMBDC business. One of them turned to Jones, and said, “What’s it going to take for you to take this job?” That got Jones’ attention.

Martin said, “Glen and I started soliciting him. We solicited him every which way we could — even in the grocery store. I told him ‘Wade, you know you’re the answer.’”

Their persuasion worked. Wade Jones took over as president of the EMBDC on Feb. 19.

Why would Jones leave such a bright future with such a preeminent firm to go “out into the cold?”

“I have two adorable children and a wonderful wife, so when I was approached about this job, it made me think about my future with the power company,” Jones responded. “That future would have required me to move my family and to take on more responsibility. That was flattering, but I did not want to do that.

“Secondly, I had fallen in love with Meridian, and I’ve always had a passion for economic and community development. It’s really about the dynamics of working with the leaders of the business community and governmental representatives for the benefit of every citizen. Unless you’ve done it, it’s hard to appreciate it.”

Testimonials from community leaders confirm that the EMBDC has made a near-perfect choice. The energetic Jones seems to have all the talents and right connections to handle the position. The roll call of praises is a local “Who’s Who.”

Jimmy Smith, president of the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors, said, “Well, he’s charismatic — a real people person — and you could tell he had a passion about our area before he got the EMBDC job. And he’s well connected. I was in Governor Musgrove’s office the other day and he said, ‘Tell Wade Jones I’m looking forward to working with him.’ That’s impressive.”

Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith weighed in with this: “Wade Jones is the ideal solution and a very good fit. In his short time in Meridian, he learned the personalities and the politics and already shares in Meridian’s great promise that most of us see.”

Bruce Martin recalled that Mississippi Development Authority executive director J. C. Burns made a talk in January to an EMBDC group. After his remarks, Burns called Deweese aside and suggested that they seek Jones for the opening. Martin said, “That brought warmth to me and Glen both because by that time we had almost worked out a deal with Wade.”

Gerald Mills, who’s been MDA’s east central field office manager for 13 years, reacted this way: “In the past, Meridian has always been looking for a messiah, and being a new guy, it took them a year to learn things. Wade hit the ground running, and his corporate experience gives him a lot of credibility. He’s willing to tell people what they don’t want to hear, and that’s important.”

As for Jones’ former employer, MPC’s vice president Ed Blakeslee said, “We hate to lose good people like Wade, but when they have opportunities that they see as benefiting them and their families, they should take it. We will miss Wade — he was well, well respected by our Meridian employees.”

Jones — and the other community leaders — believe the timing is propitious for his takeover. Supervisor Jimmy Smith says all of the options have been exercised on the new 630-acre industrial park east of the city. Plans are underway to obtain immediate access to I-20-59 and four lane U.S. 45, and the two railroads, all adjoining the property.

The city will provide water and sewerage.

That combined with the area’s strategic location halfway between the Madison County Nissan plant and Alabama’s Mercedes plant give leaders optimism about economic development. And Gerald Mills is convinced that the vacant 200,000-square-foot former Delco building will be snatched up by some major auto supplier.

“Look at the pieces of the puzzle that are coming together,” Bruce Martin said. And he reeled off numerous other projects that are either on the drawing board or nearing fruition. These include extensive downtown revitalization such as the $31-million Old Opera House restoration and the Riley Education Center, which will adjoin the opera house, and two major downtown apartment developments.

Asked if there had been criticism of the decision to hire Jones, devout Mississippi State fan Martin chuckled and said, “Only one. He’s an Ole Miss guy.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at mbj@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.

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