By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – A City Council majority on Tuesday is expected to support Mayor Jason Shelton’s nomination of businessman Shane Hooper as the city’s director of development services, even though some have concerns about his lack of related experience.
Hooper, 44, a Fulton native and Saltillo resident, is an established business and civic leader but will enter the job without professional experience in planning or local government.
He will lead the department responsible for balancing growth in the city with the interests of residents and businesses. The department faces hefty tasks of helping redevelop and revitalize struggling neighborhoods.
“He’s not going to pretend to be an expert in areas where he has no experience,” Shelton said last week. “If we wanted a second planner we’d have hired one.”
While not an expert in city planning, Hooper’s nomination represents the first-term mayor’s efforts to have city government actively recruit businesses to Tupelo.
All previous leaders of the department, which carries out growth-related policies and regulations, have had backgrounds in planning. Previous department head BJ Teal left the city less than seven months ago, saying she had philosophical differences with Shelton.
Shelton has since said that he wanted to redefine the position as an economic development leader for the city.
The position will pay $73,000 annually.
Along with owning an educational services business, Hooper has sold life insurance and served as an officer in the Marine Corps. He also currently serves on the state Board of Trustees of Insitutions of Higher Learning, commonly called the College Board, as an appointee of Gov. Phil Bryant and has a long list of local awards, accomplishments and community involvement.
“He’s built relationships to get us where we need to be,” Shelton said of Hooper. “I don’t know of a part of government where those relationships are more important than economic development.”
Most of Tupelo’s business and industrial recruitment has resulted from efforts of the Community Development Foundation, an economic development organization renowned for recruiting jobs to Tupelo and Lee County.
This year, Site Selection magazine ranked CDF third in the nation among economic development groups operating in a non-urban area anchored by a town with population of 50,000 or less. The Tupelo micropolitan area ranked second in the nation for high activity for new and existing industrial activity that involved creation of more than 900 new jobs and involved more than $78 million in capital improvements.
CDF President and CEO David Rumbarger, an enthusiastic Hooper supporter and one of his references, said the city will have a valuable asset with the businessman. Other references include retired BancorpSouth Chairman and CEO Aubrey Patterson and IHL Commissioner Hank Bounds.
“He has the kind of ability to build a vision for the future that would be beneficial for Tupelo,” Patterson said Friday.
Hooper was named CDF chairman two weeks ago at the organization’s annual meeting but will resign from the position if hired by the city. He has led CDF committees and served on the board of North Mississippi Health Services, the system that includes North Mississippi Medical Center.
If picked for the job, Hooper said he won’t participate in his business’ day-to-day activities and plans to move his residence to Tupelo. He’ll remain on the College Board.
Hooper said the city’s development services department has plenty of capable employees with technical skill sets and he isn’t needed to fill their shoes. He said his management strengths and business contacts will pay off.
“I have a wide variety of experiences – a management degree, prior military service, NMMC board and a variety of other opportunities that have given me a chance to achieve and work toward a common goal,” he said. “I think my skill set is very applicable to what we’re trying to achieve in the department.”
Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington said he plans to support Hooper’s nomination for the position based on his leadership and success in the private sector but questions the mayor’s desire to make emphasizing economic development a top priority for the development services department.
“As strong as CDF is, I don’t know why we need the focus on economic development,” he said. “In hindsight, I think we need someone who is strong in neighborhood redevelopment and knowledgeable of implementing a comprehensive plan.”
Ward 5 Councilman Buddy Palmer, the mayor’s former peewee football coach who now considers Shelton the city’s quarterback, said he’ll also vote for the nominee Tuesday but with reservations.
Hooper will add diversity to city department head positions, a stated goal of Shelton’s administration. Cassandra Moore, Tupelo personnel director, is currently the lone black department head.
The mayor said race wasn’t a factor when he picked Hooper for the job.
“Diversity is important, but I’m not going to hire someone just for a number,” Shelton said. “Shane is the most qualified person for the job and that’s all that matters.”
Tupelo’s two black council members, Ward 7’s Willie Jennings and Council President Nettie Davis of Ward 4, have not publicly taken a position on Hooper’s appointment.
“I want to talk to him and see where he stands on some things before I start answering questions,” Jennings said.
Davis did not respond to repeated calls from the Daily Journal seeking comment on Hooper’s nomination.
Lee Brown, president of the American Institute of Certified Planners, said because of his inexperience in the field, Hooper will have a big learning curve on basic planning tools and laws affecting municipalities, along with awareness of the regulatory environment.
“It’s harder for a person without the skill set and experience to walk in and lead a department,” Brown said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Shelton and other elected leaders plan to make the personnel and policy gambit on Hooper’s personality, leadership experience and private sector success.
“I’m trying something new,” Shelton said. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll go from there.”