Economic development is putting into force the elements that allow for human development, one person at a time – that is my own definition. I think this is lost when we vie to recruit the next big deal or get a local company to expand. Sometimes, I think we go off the deep end in rushing to create new growth and to cut ribbons without contemplating how this is helping individual people. Economic development is harnessing the elements you have at hand to put together programs that result in jobs and investment. And economic development, like charity, starts at home. It takes people who are willing to be creative, work hard, and face a multitude of detractors to make things happen. My friend Linda Kay Jones fits this profile better than anybody I have known.
During our 20-year friendship, she told me about her childhood growing up in Pecos, Texas, and how she found herself a young, single mother of five children, struggling to make it. Interestingly, the best economic developers I have known have come from poor backgrounds. Perhaps this is what fuels their drive to make things happen. When she finally settled in the southwestern New Mexico town of Silver City and married J.P. Jones, who would become the city’s mayor, she jumped into the economic development field head first. She was already a driving force behind the Silver City-Grant County Economic Development Corporation, the Small Business Development Center of Grant County, and various Western New Mexico University programs when I met her in 1994.
I was repatriating from managing New Mexico’s trade/tourism office in Mexico City. She asked me to come speak to her group in Silver City, specifically about the potential trade opportunities with Mexico. Shortly thereafter, she took off like a tornado, founding the NAFTA Institute Trade Conference, establishing a basic economic development course in various Mexican cities, and acquiring the funding to establish the International Business Accelerator (IBA) trade counseling program as part of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network – a program which I manage today.
In 2003 when Linda Kay got the initial funding for the IBA, she asked me to manage the program. I wanted to take a break from trade counseling and was not interested. She then asked me as a personal favor to help set up the program so that she could interview candidates, and I agreed. When the program was up and running, I went back and asked whom she was going to choose to manage the IBA and she said, “Still looking, can you keep running it for a while longer?” Weeks turned into months and eventually into a year. By the time I realized it, my team had taken ownership of the program and it had become our baby – we were going to run it. She was so sly that she knew that this would happen all along, and I tell people to this day that she “tricked” me into running the IBA.
For somebody who did not have a historical business connection to Mexico, she completely understood how important building a trade relationship with that nation was to the U.S. and to small businesspeople who could benefit from trade opportunities. She understood that at the border Mexico should be a natural element of any economic development program. Even though she didn’t speak Spanish, she fearlessly traveled to Mexico to build bridges.
She also did not discount any person because he/she was of a different political party. Linda Kay was involved in politics as a means to move forward her economic development projects, not to play politics for politics’ sake. She didn’t like to get up in groups and grandstand. There were times when both of us were at events and asked to speak. She would grab my arm and insist that I do the speaking because she was uneasy speaking in front of crowds. During her career, she firmly believed that a person could do anything as long as you believed in what you were doing.
My friend died on September 2, after a heroic battle with cancer. Talk about perseverance – she called me from her hospice bed, two weeks before her passing, sounding chipper as ever, asking for my help on an economic development class that she was trying to establish in Monterrey, Mexico. She had other people helping her plan the continuance of her programs after she was gone.
At her memorial service, a cross-section of society was in attendance – economic developers, businesspeople, educators, politicians and people who had been helped by her programs. I heard many people talk about how she touched so many people. However, I told one of my friends that this sentiment was only half true. The programs she created will continue to touch people after her death by creating opportunities in order to build human beings and bright futures. People will utilize these programs who will never have the opportunity to meet this wonderful, unselfish lady. But all the rest of us in her extended family will be there to carry on her spirit, one person at a time.