This is the year almost all cities and towns in Mississippi have municipal elections. Most incumbent mayors have opposition. However, there are a few running unopposed, indicating that voters believe their leaders are doing something right. To learn more, I interviewed several mayors about themselves, their cities, and their challenges and opportunities. First up is Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee.
1. Tell us a little about your background.
I was born in Hickory, MS, and grew up on a dairy farm. When I finished school, I had a career in the life insurance business before I became Mayor. I am Southern Baptist, play the trombone in the Mississippi Symphony Baptist Orchestra, and also play English hand bells. My main hobby is cycling. I am married to Jane (Speed) McGee and have two children and seven grandchildren.
I was elected to the Board of Alderman in Ridgeland in 1985 and was first elected Mayor in 1989. I have served all offices of the Mississippi Municipal League (MML), including two years as President. I currently serve on the Board of Directors for MML, as well as the Executive Committee and the Legislative Committee. I have served two terms on the Board of Directors for the National League of Cities and currently serve on NLC’s Advisory Council, as well as the Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee.
2. Why did you run for mayor?
I ran for Mayor because I believe my business experience, as well as my vison, was important to the future of City of Ridgeland. I believe that running a city like a business not only helps it to be progressive but also provides services to its citizens at the best possible cost.
3. What surprised you most during your first year in office?
I was very surprised to see how slow things move in government. I was accustomed to the private sector where decisions were made quickly and plans were implemented without the red tape. The loads of red tape and bureaucracy in government was a big surprise to me.
4. What do you consider your biggest accomplishment/proudest achievement since taking office?
I will have to say there are many things: the building of Highland Colony Parkway; establishing the first high school in the City of Ridgeland; building Lake Harbour Drive from Highway 51 to Highland Colony Parkway; constructing Colony Park Boulevard; and last but not least, building the new City Center, including the first phase with the new City Hall building. It is important to point out all of these accomplishments took place because of frugal budgeting and keeping the taxes low for our citizens.
5. What are the most important skills needed as a mayor?
Vision, patience, integrity, and fairness are very important. I believe communication is key to being successful in any situation, and the ability to collaborate with other political leaders is essential to being a successful mayor. I also believe it’s important to hire employees with the same skills and virtues. A mayor is only as successful as the people with whom he surrounds himself.
6. What's the biggest challenge facing Ridgeland in the next four years?
Three things stand out to me that are always challenging for us. First, some of our aging areas need to be redeveloped, and we are working with landowners and developers to prevent blight in our City. Secondly, our infrastructure must be at the highest quality. That’s a challenge for our entire state, and it’s necessary for our economy to flourish. Our Public Works office does a wonderful job of anticipating our needs, but maintaining and preserving our infrastructure is always a challenge. I am proud to say our water and sewer system is the best it can be. Finally, we continually face the challenge of adequate workforce housing. We have some of the finest subdivisions in Mississippi, but we need more homes in an affordable range for working professionals such as firemen, policemen, school teachers, and nurses – those who are looking for a really nice home, but not in the millions of dollars. Our Community Development department is working hard to provide that opportunity for our citizens.
7. What’s the biggest opportunity facing Ridgeland in the next four years?
I would say that economic development is our biggest opportunity. Because of our strategic location and our progressiveness, Ridgeland is an outstanding place for those who would like to invest by moving or growing their businesses here. I see continued growth, not only for businesses within the City, but also those that would like to relocate here.
8. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to run for mayor of their town?
First of all, I think they should pray about it to be sure that it’s God’s will that they seek political office. Secondly, they need the support of their family and friends. Thirdly, they need to have a vision for their city. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of their towns and the ability to communicate their vision to improve their city are essential.
9. What’s your assessment of how Ridgeland city government has responded to the COVID pandemic over the past year? What, if anything, would you have done differently?
I am very pleased with the way our City responded to the COVID crisis. Our Public Safety departments did an excellent job working with the public to be sure that everyone was safe. I couldn’t ask for a better job from them, and I couldn’t ask for a better team of police and firemen. Overall, all other departments responded very well. They took in stride the fact that some events had to be limited or cancelled, but they have overcome those situations in a very positive way. One of the things I’m most proud of is the way we worked with our business community to relax some of the rules on signage to allow them to be creative and innovative while staying open and serving the public, particularly restaurants. I believe that had a very positive impact and kept the economy strong for the City. I don’t know that I would have done anything differently at this particular time.
10. What’s your vision for Ridgeland's economy in the future?
We continue to seek high-quality retail businesses for our City. This has been the bread and butter for Ridgeland for a number of years, and we believe the retail industry helps to provide the superior services to our citizens that they expect and deserve. I believe that the economy will continue to grow. We are hearing a lot of excitement about new businesses coming to Ridgeland, and we frequently hear encouraging reports from our established businesses. We will continue to focus on strengthening our housing base, which will in turn positively impact our business climate. My vison is to invariably strengthen our economy, and we are optimistic to see what the future brings Ridgeland.
» PHIL HARDWICK is a regular Mississippi Business Journal columnist. His email address is email@example.com.