New director hired for ailing Agri-Center

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By Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – With questions nagging the Lee County Agri-Center for years related to financial sustainability, the Board of Supervisors put the facility’s future in the hands Monday of a 31-year-old they described as civic minded and experienced in dealing with the public.
Supervisors unanimously approved hiring Torrey Mitchell of New Albany as Agri-Center director, a position with an annual base salary of $48,000 and incentives that could bring it up to $62,400.
Mitchell has been a heating and air conditioning service technician, run a fishing business with his brother and been a diving instructor, among the experiences listed on his resume’.
Aside from interims, Mitchell will be the sixth leader at the center since opening in 1994. Lee County Administrator Sean Thompson has served as interim director since the previous leader, Julia Viator, resigned in October 2011 after 18 months on the job.
A consultant a few years ago recommended improvements for the facility that will cost the county about $1.2 million. However, supervisors have shown reluctance in recent years to invest additional taxpayer money into the project.
“It’s been a financial drain on the county for years,” said Board President Bobby Smith. “We’re trying to get it more to the point of self-sufficiency.”
Smith said he felt optimistic that Mitchell, who highlighted his background as a Boy Scout with community and civic-minded activities, will help the Agri-Center reach new heights. Mitchell’s financial compensation includes base pay and tiered incentives related to selling advertising and the county contributing fewer tax dollars to the center.
Supporters of the Agri-Center, including Stuart Johnson, chairman of the Agri-Center Advisory Committee who recommended Mitchell to the board, said the facility requires immediate and long-term improvements. However, Supervisor Smith said Monday after the meeting that he agreed the center needs upgrades but wasn’t ready to commit a specific amount.
“How much that is will be determined by the amount of progress he makes,” Smith said of the new director.
To assist Mitchell during his first year of leading the county center with a current annual budget of $428,313, supervisors also hired Kristi Harris as an “agritainment” consultant for $10,000 as part of a year-long contract.
Harris operates BlueJack Ridge Kids Ranch, a Western-themed farm and ranch aimed at attracting kids ages 3-12 near Poplarville in the southern part of the state.

robbie.ward@journalinc.com