By NASH NUNNERY
Tray Hairston isn’t your stereotypical attorney.
The Jackson native is a student of continental philosophy and existentialism. From Socrates to Sartre, Hairston once took every course offered in the discipline at Tougaloo College and followed up with philosophy course work at Emory University, Brown, NYU and Millsaps College.
An attorney with the Butler Snow law firm, Hairston concurs with Socrates, who wrote that the unexamined life is not worth living.
“I think my study of philosophy has helped me to think critically about certain issues in a broad cross-section of disciplines,” he said. “It’s helped me to become a better lawyer.”
A graduate of the Mississippi College School of Law, Hairston recently earned inclusion into The Bond Buyer’s 2018 Rising Stars. He also was named to the Mississippi Main Street board of directors.
But Hairston, a member of Butler Snow’s public finance, tax incentives and credit markets groups, is most passionate about economic development. Prior to joining Butler Snow, the attorney served as counsel and economic policy advisor to Gov. Phil Bryant. Hairston also has worked in the global business division for the Mississippi Development Authority.
“Working as a project manager for MDA, I helped companies and site location consultants find the most appropriate site in Mississippi and obtain incentives,” he said. “I marveled at the work of the lawyers crafting the deal which most always involved bonds. As a result, I yearned to be on the legal side of the transaction.”
A big influence on the young lawyer was the late Frank Stimley, Mississippi’s first African-American bond attorney. Stimley died in 2004, around the time Hairston began his MDA career. Though he never met him personally, Hairston knew the trajectory of his career was changing due to Stimley’s inspiration.
“(Stimley) is still lauded as one of the best bond lawyers Mississippi has ever seen,” Hairston said. “I’ve always wanted a practice that looks like his and be a trailblazer in the industry like Mr. Stimley.”
Hairston’s interest in economic development was sparked even further while working in the governor’s office. He helped draft the historic Mississippi Health Care Industry Zone Act of 2012 and worked on policy surrounding the implementation of affordable housing tax credits for workforce housing in healthcare zones.
As a professional in both the legal and economic development arenas, Hairston sees challenges ahead for Mississippi to stay competitive. He says predicting the future has its own challenges.
“We have to be on top of changes that are occurring throughout many of the employment sectors in the country,” Hairston said. “Altering the way laborers work, innovations in technology, automation of manufacturing and artificial intelligence will change the type of jobs economic developers recruit.
“(Mississippi’s) success will hinge on how innovative we are at figuring out how to adapt to change.”
He also believes equity and inclusion (economic and wealth disparities) will continue to be a challenge.
“It’s not about just race, black-and-white. The challenge is also about rich and poor,” said the married father of three. “How do we build up our poorest? It soon won’t be good enough to say that we brought in billions of dollars of investment without also asking the question, ‘Who are getting the jobs?’”
Honored by his selection to the Mississippi Main Street board, Hairston suggests that site selectors looking at communities for ‘big box’ projects see ‘quality of place’ as a huge component in their decision making.
“Quality of place comprises of low crime rates, good schools, affordable housing, access to quality health care, attractive and active downtowns, among other things,” he said. “Mississippi Main Street picks up some of the slack with respect to aiding in support of the place-making components.
“I’m looking forward to helping to raise the visibility of the organization and bolster its resources through fundraising.”
Hairston grew up in Jackson but attended Madison County schools because his mother DeEtta taught at Madison Central High School. He characterizes his middle school years as “defiant, a short attention span and a lack of concern for good grades.”
Teacher/mother DeEtta Hairston set young Tray straight. Her strong influence led to Hairston earning the school’s citizenship award three of his four high school years.
“My mother let me know very early in my freshman year at Madison Central that she was the boss,” he said.
Spoken like a true philosopher.
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