As he drove his SUV around the former Rentech site, it was more than obvious that Chandler Russ is home. The Natchez native easily rattled off the site’s history and assets from memory.
And, Russ does it with a big grin.
Coming up on his third anniversary as executive director of Natchez Inc., the lead economic development organization for Natchez and Adams County, Russ looks and sounds like a man who has come home to stay.
“I’m really, really happy here,” said Russ while wearing a local high school’s team colors in support of the opening football game that evening. “This is the right time and the right place for me.”
Perhaps it is indeed the final destination for Russ whose career path has taken several turns and would have led him out of not only Natchez but the entire state if not for the efforts of a mentor/economic developer.
Growing up in a home full of University of Southern Mississippi fans, Russ entered USM after high school, earning a B.S. in regional and community planning, and promptly found work in his field.
But he wasn’t entirely satisfied in his new career, and turned to Robert Ingram for advice.
Ingram, a former mayor of McComb who would subsequently forge a successful economic development career (he recently retired as lead economic developer in Baldwin County, Ala., and is now a consultant), had gotten to know Russ’ family through USM activities, and he recommended Southern Miss’ graduate economic development program.
This would prove a career spark for Russ. After earning his master’s degree, he was named executive director of the Nevada County Economic Development Office in Prescott, Ark.
Russ had held the position for about two years and had grown comfortable when he got a call from Ingram about a position back in Brookhaven. Russ initially said he wasn’t very interested, but Ingram persisted and Russ eventually agreed to an interview.
In the mean time, Russ had gotten a call from a prominent Arkansas utility about a plum job as project manager. He was offered the job, wanted it, but couldn’t commit.
“I told him I was 95 percent sure I would take the job, but I had promised a friend I would do this interview back in Mississippi,” Russ remembered.
But, Russ found more opportunity than he expected, and with the chance to move closer to home as an extra perk accepted the position of executive director of the Brookhaven/Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce and Industrial Development Foundation.
From there his fast rise continued. Russ was tapped by the Tennessee Valley Authority as Mississippi Region project manager in 2004, was named director of the Mississippi Development Authority’s Existing Industry and Business Division in 2008 before coming back to Natchez in November 2010.
By that time, Russ had forged a solid reputation as a savvy economic developer. When the Mississippi Business Journal polled economic developers on who they thought should be the new executive director of the MDA when Gray Swoope announced he was leaving in 2011, Russ was one of a few who garnered multiple votes.
But, Russ was already at Natchez Inc. by then, and when told he was a popular candidate for the MDA job just laughed, said he was honored and quickly added he was happy in Natchez.
Two years later, Russ has played a key role in turning around the major manufacturing job losses seen by the area over the last couple of decades. He continually talked of consensus and community and the optimism that the recent successes has brought to his hometown.
Leaving the Rentech property, he swung by a 3,000-plus-acre site that he sees as the place for future growth of the Natchez-Adams County Port. Russ turned off the road to a spot on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.
“I spent many a day here as a kid,” he said. Pointing toward a large pile of ashes, he added with a grin, “I’m glad to see the tradition of building a bonfire here is still being observed.”
As he pulled off, Russ had to negotiate a fair-sized ditch and a rutted dirt road.
“I hope I don’t get us stuck,” he said, “but it’s okay. I know a lot of people who would