Clarksdale — On the phone, Blair Jernigan sounds like a man in his early 30s, not one who will celebrate his 55th birthday in 2006.
“Oh, I’m definitely in my mid-50s,” Jernigan said with a chuckle. “But it’s flattering to know I sound much younger.”
Based on his career accomplishments, the new and energetic COO for Delta Regional Authority (DRA) has led two lives. Now a brigadier general, his military career began when he was an undergraduate student at the University of Mississippi. (He later earned a master’s degree in business administration from Ole Miss.) Since then, he has earned numerous military decorations, including the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, Southwest Asia Service Medal, Mississippi War Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal and the Kuwait Liberation Medal.
While a colonel in the Air National Guard, he served as a wing and base commander and director for the 172nd Military Airlift Wing in Jackson. A past president of the National Guard Association of Mississippi, he remains active in the National Guard Association of the U.S. and also serves as assistant director of Plans and Programs for the U.S. Air Force Air Mobility and chief of staff for the Mississippi Air National Guard.
“(Blair’s) vast experience in economic development and his long military record brings the kind of resourcefulness and structural background that will serve the Delta Regional Authority well and advance our goals of attacking the institutional causes of poverty that have menaced the Delta for too long,” said DRA state co-chair Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D-La.).
Before joining Panola Partnership Inc., a countywide development organization in Batesville as CEO in June 2004, Jernigan worked in various economic development and financial capacities for public and private entities. He gained experience working with Deposit Guaranty National Bank (now AmSouth), Mississippi Research and Development Center and Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner & Smith, all in Jackson.
While working as an economic development specialist for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he received the agency’s Regional Administrators Award. As a senior project manager for Entergy Corporation in Jackson, he earned the Best Practice Award for redesigning the company’s Economic Development Tradeshow Program.
“Blair … understands the important relationships that must be developed among local and federal government and the respect both must have for private and corporate interests,” said DRA federal co-chair Pete Johnson.
Jernigan was attracted to DRA because “the organization is the right place at the right time,” he said.
“Only a couple of other organizations have the kind of synergy that you see with this consolidated effort among eight states,” he said. “To be working in Mississippi for DRA in this capacity is a dream come true. If we can provide better quality jobs and increase the quality of life in the Delta, what’s better than that?”
The statistics DRA recently presented to the White House and Congress concerning the millions of dollars in grants that have helped create some 19,000 verified jobs in the Delta impressed Jernigan, along with the recommendation by President George W. Bush to triple the federal agency’s budget.
“Pete has proven that you can take a small but dedicated and well-qualified staff and make tremendous things happen,” he said. “This program has successfully completed its start-up period and is just now moving into the operational phase. You’re about to see some really neat projects and developments come out of that.”
In his new role, Jernigan hit the ground running. About 10 minutes after the DRA board of directors approved him for the post, he was charged with helping improve the agency’s communications program. “And I don’t even start work until next week (August 1),” Jernigan said with a chuckle.
“I’ve got a lot to learn about the DRA and I’m eager to do it,” he said. “I want to spend time in all eight states, learning what their needs are, and then focusing on getting the office into the most effective and efficient manner possible. We need to fine tune some things and maybe carry forward some of the best practices I’ve learned from the private sector and the military, to see if they can be utilized to make us even better.”
Jernigan will make the daily 45-minute commute from his Batesville home to DRA’s office in Clarksdale. “I like rural country living,” he said. “It’s a different pace, it’s peaceful. A lot of really good people live in this whole region. By living here, I can identify with the problems we’ve got in the Delta.”
His job has already been made easier, said Jernigan, because “from the first board meeting, I sensed there is a very strong coalition here. And it’s very unique to supercede political, social and cultural boundaries. It’s a good combination that can lead to growth with just a little bit of leveraging and a little bit of leadership. The future is very bright for DRA.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.