Jackson — On August 24, Jimmy Heidel’s world turned upside down again. But this time, he was happy to manage the topsy-turvy situation.
Jackson Mayor Frank Melton appointed the former state economic development chief as the Capital City’s lead economic developer in “a major, major coup for the City of Jackson,” said Melton.
Not too many months ago, Heidel and his wife, Joanna, survived a horrific car crash during a rainstorm on Interstate 59 en route from Laurel to Hattiesburg. Her injuries were extensive and the initial outlook for recovery was grim.
“She’s back to about 99% strength,” said Heidel. “The Lord blessed me and left her with me.”
Five years ago, the Heidels moved from Jackson to Vicksburg after his eight-year run ended as chief of the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development (now MDA) under former Gov. Kirk Fordice. Since 2000, he has served as executive director of the Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce and the Vicksburg-Warren County Economic Development Foundation. He is also coordinating MDA’s oil and gas program.
Because of Heidel’s recent appointment to the city, the Yazoo City native, Ole Miss grad and former NFL player plans to sell the family home and return to Jackson.
“I was told I didn’t have to move (right away),” said Heidel. “We had a contract on our house, contingent on the buyers selling their home. The idea four months ago was to downsize to something smaller near a golf course, but now we’re re-thinking the whole situation.”
Laying the groundwork
Even though Heidel will not officially begin his new job until October 1, he plans to spend the month of September mapping out a new marketing strategy while his wife handles house-hunting details. Melton has charged him with revamping the city’s economic development department, which is now a division of Jackson’s Department of Planning and Development, headed by Corinne Fox, a longtime associate of Heidel’s.
“The mayor told me, ‘You’re totally in charge. Revamp it any way you want. Just let me know what’s going on,” said Heidel, “and that’s exactly what I wanted to hear.”
On Heidel’s short-term to-do list: complete a comprehensive inventory of properties in Jackson. “If Jackson is like most communities, there’s incomplete information,” said Heidel, “so I’ll take my economic development checklist and find out information on every building, industrial park and piece of property available for sale.”
Heidel also plans to ask public entity leaders in surrounding counties and communities to work with the city to promote the area, “and I’ve got to get the private sector involved,” he said.
“The economic development division is somewhat hidden in the planning department, so I’ll make it a separate department and bring it out big,” he said. “We need to do away with some of the perceptions about Jackson, bring out assets and incentives, develop marketing material and then I’ll hit the road selling. They’ve never had anybody on the road going to real estate conferences, trade shows or anything like that trying to sell Jackson. That’s what I’ve done everywhere I’ve been.”
At press time, Heidel’s salary had not been negotiated, but Melton told him he could “set the budget I want, including travel” for economic development, an amount he declined to disclose. “What little money they invest will pay off big-time for them,” he said.
Changing a few minds
Overcoming the obstacle that Jackson is perceived as “run-down and crime-ridden” will take some time, said Heidel, but added it helps that “everybody knows the mayor’s pro-active stance on crime and housing and education.”
“I don’t know if anyone’s pulled the information, but there are a lot of positive things going on in Jackson,” he said. “Look at the new construction and renovation work going on downtown. But the only issue we see in the paper is the King Edward — and that’ll be handled. In the past, there hasn’t been a real good relationship between the city and the chamber, but that’s changing. I just spoke to the folks at the Hinds County Economic Development District and they said they’d love to work with the city. All of those people are my friends and we’ll work together. That alone will help change the perception.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.