Mayor Gary Rhoades opens up about early career, Flowood and his thoughts on leadership
A police officer at 20 and a mayor at 36, Rhoades has been in public service in Rankin County for more than thirty years. He was first elected mayor of Flowood in 1989 after spending 16 years in law enforcement, including eight as the Flowood chief of police.
Born and raised in Pearl and educated at Hinds Community College and the University of Southern Mississippi, Rhoades was tapped as the successor to retiring Mayor Chastain Flynt even after admitting to the mayor that he “despised politics.”
Under Rhoades’ administration, Flowood’s population skyrocketed, Lakeland Drive flourished and outdoor malls such as Dogwood Festival Marketplace replaced what was once merely cow pastures.
Rhoades’ most recent accomplishments include the passage of controversial liquor licensing that opened the doors for more upscale restaurants, the opening of a parkway and future medical corridor for Metro Jackson and the construction of an access road connecting a gridlocked Lakeland Drive to nearby Brandon.
From playing wide receiver on the football field to busting in doors as a police officer, Rhoades told MBJ he learned the principles of teamwork, respect and sticking to your guns.
Q: You mentioned your first years as being aggressive. Was that partly because Flowood was a new city and you were really trying to ramp up in those early years? Were there any challenges?
A: I remember back then I was scared to death. I thought mayors went around and kissed babies on the head and played golf all the time. So I dug in and learned what it was to promote and build a city.
The first meeting I had, the Woodrow Wilson bridge going into Jackson broke in half and shut down. The first meeting I conducted, I raised the millage, three-and-a-half mills. The first meeting I raised taxes and I said, “Guys, I don’t know how long I’m gonna be here but this is the last meeting I’ll ever have like this.” We went and got grants from Washington, made it wider, went through the Mississippi historical people and got that thing opened up.
The biggest part of the job I’ve enjoyed has been economic development. I remember when we landed the first McDonald’s up here. Man, we thought we’d hit a homerun. There wasn’t anything out here but Jackson Prep and Blue Cross Blue Shield… Flowood used to be an industrial town and the industry — you know manufacturing kinda went away in the United States — but Mayor Flynt was smart enough to use the city’s financial capacity because Flowood has always been financially sound.
My job was, “How else can we diversify this city.” Next thing you know McRae’s says we wanna be right there and there’s nothing but cattle out there, you know, grazing. We kept working and then when Dogwood (Festival Marketplace) came and the sales were tremendous they optioned the land on Promenade. Belk is sitting out there doing 50,000 square feet and expanding. That’s their number two store in the nation. It’s just a tremendous amount of expendable income.
Q: Based off of your personal experience in law enforcement, how has it developed and grown in Flowood?
A: You got to feel pretty much safe to want to put your business somewhere and wanna live, work and play. I’m very proud of both of our police and fire. We’ve spent millions on our fire department. We have a Class 4 fire rating, there’s not but four cities in the state of Mississippi that’s got a Class 4. That’s just another tool for economic development because its gonna cost (businesses) less insurance premiums. So you got low taxes, low fire rating, low crime — that’s the elements it takes to make economic development happen. In the nighttime population I think we got 7,800 people that live here. During the daytime its unbelievable but its our job to take care of both. Being broke into ain’t gonna happen ‘cause we’ll go down to shoot so quick it’ll make your head swim. If a lady gets pushed and her purse snatched you’d probably think the FBI and the National Guard was coming in.
Q: Tell us how the East Metro access road and other projects are doing.
A: We started that years ago in 1990 with the first transportation bill and we got the road program. It opens about 2,000 acres of airport property land. (We are) trying to help the airport and get funds together to bring some type aviation in here. You get a Boeing or Airbus in here that’s like bringing a Nissan. High-paying jobs. Smart kids that come in and filter into your school system.
We got us a logjam on Lakeland Drive. Its the Department of Transportation’s responsibility. I met with them just the other day. Had the executive director and the chief engineers in here saying, “What can we do to expedite Lakeland Drive being widened.”
I’ll go to the next level and the next, I’ll just keep on climbing because it ain’t gone happen if you just sit there, you got to keep pushing. What you got is just like that hourglass, you got six lanes filtered down to four. When Old Fannin — that’s the county — when they widen like we are in the city it’ll free up a lot of movement of traffic. The problem is we’re growing so fast we can’t keep up with the infrastructure.
Q: You got some resistance on the liquor licensing in 2009.
A: I’ve been a diabetic all my life. I don’t promote drinking, it’d kill me. I married a Baptist preacher’s daughter and at the time I was a deacon in what was probably the largest Baptist church in Rankin County. I went through that Bible back and forth and met with several Baptist preachers and told them what I was gonna do. I met with Speaker of the House Billy McCoy. I said “Let’s talk about this. First miracle Jesus ever did was change the water to wine at a wedding. You cannot legislate morality.”
I took a lot of flack but I stayed in my belief and told each of them, “Preacher, you show me in this Bible where it’s wrong and I’ll drop it today.” The people voted, it passed by more than 80 percent. We have less DUIs now then we did back then. They can say what they want to but we regulate it. I don’t want no honky tonks. I’ve been in them, had to drag people out of them, fighting, cutting and shooting. What I wanted was the nice restaurants. Table 100 is one of the nicest restaurants you’ll come across. I’m not having a bunch of drinking holes out here.
Q: Do you see yourself as a competitor or a cooperator with Jackson and the surrounding counties?
A: (As a lawman) when you bust that door down you’re not going in by yourself — you got five, 10 people behind you. It’s always been about team with me. It’s the cop mentality — everybody is treated equal. I was always pushing for what was best for the whole city. In today’s world if you don’t keep pushing and standing up for what’s right you fall in the same compromising crowd as everyone else. What was good for Flowood was good for all of Rankin County. If it floods on this side of the river it floods on the other side of the river. If water gets in my homes it gets in (Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson’s) homes.
There’s been a lot things that we’ve been blessed with. I can’t bless nobody, only the good Lord can do that, but it’s been amazing to drive these streets as a police officer and see the change. When I was police chief, Lakeland was a two-lane highway. I worked an accident that there was four children that got killed. Four young kids, been out drinking and there was a head-on. I got called — it was like at one o’clock in the morning — and threw my boots on and blue jeans and went to the scene and actually had to take pictures of two of the kids laying on the pavement and closed their eyelids.
I’ve gotta great wife, been married 40 years. My wife says I need to slow down sometimes. That accident was way more stress, of dealing with life and death than this job’s ever been. Every politician should have been on the police department before. Then you learn what’s right and what’s wrong. They ain’t any grey area. Things would be a lot simpler.