ORIGINALLY WRITTEN LAURA CAMPBELL
For years, she’s volunteered her time and energy for the economic development of the city of Marion.
She was instrumental in the development of Marion’s housing incentives program, helped build a skate park for Marion’s youth in a matter of a couple months and, as a mother of three kids, has spearheaded fund-raising for the school’s Parent Advisory Council.
Now, Jami Williams will finally get paid to do the same kind of work as the new economic-development director for the town she’s loved to call home for 12 years.
Williams was appointed to the position at the Dec. 5 meeting of the Marion City Commission, following what she said was a pretty long interviewing process during October and November.
“But I think they did an awesome job-it was very thorough,” Williams added. “It was really a good experience.”
Williams was selected out of about 13 applicants, only two of whom made it to a final round of hands-on testing.
The position is not a brand-new one for the city, Williams said.
“They have had an economic development position in the past,” she said. “But when that person resigned from her position, they let the city administrator fill it on an interim basis to determine if there was a need (for the position to continue).”
Williams said the city administrator’s workload proved too full to devote substantial time to economic development.
“And with the industrial park and the business park, there is definitely time that should be invested in economic development,” she said. “It’s a full-time job.”
It’s a job that Williams is only too eager to begin Jan. 1 as an experienced businesswoman with her finger already positioned securely on Marion’s economic pulse.
“I’ve always an interest in Marion,” she said. “I just have always wanted it to thrive.”
The St. Joseph, Mo., native grew up in Hanover and graduated with degrees in finance and computer information systems from Emporia State University, where she met husband Stan.
The couple moved in 1987 to Florence, and Williams worked at First National Bank in El Dorado until she landed a job in 1991 at Marion’s Western Associates, a $10.5 million advertising specialty company that ships to 20 states.
The couple moved to town in 1993. Williams currently serves as comptroller at Western Associates, president of the Marion Chamber of Commerce, on the board of directors for the Marion Country Club and a founding member of Marion Advancement Campaign, a “non-profit organization invested in the future of Marion,” she said.
Williams will resign from the first two positions in order to assume her new responsibilities.
But she’ll continue to work with MAC, she said, which has already raised $50,000 and secured a grant from the Kansas Department of Commerce to cover 60 percent of costs to build a new community center and movie theater.
Williams said they will decide by Jan. 1 whether or not to continue with the project.
“We’re looking for a big donor with naming opportunities for the community center,” Williams said.
“Everything is going well-we just need to raise money now.”
Williams said her positions with MAC and the city will officially be separate, of course.
“But I think they’ll definitely work hand-in-hand,” she added.
Williams’ primary goal as eco-devo director is to bring more businesses to Marion’s industrial and business parks and fill empty spaces on Main Street, she said.
“There just needs to be someone beating the streets to find businesses to come in,” she said.
“And there needs to be set packages that you can give to somebody if they are moving to Marion.”
And networking with those who have the real power to make things happen will be a big part of that.
“My goal is to build a network of resources to be able to pull information and assistance from various resources,” she said.
“I think that there are lots of resources out there, and I want to be that go-between.”
But her efforts won’t be confined to bringing in new business-existing businesses are also a priority, Williams emphasized.
“One of my biggest concerns is I want the local businesses to know that I am here for them,” she said.
“I would hate to see some small business go out of business because they didn’t know that there were resources available.”
Williams believes she’s proved herself to be up for the challenge that lies ahead of her.
“I think that what I have done as a full-time working mother of three and a volunteer speaks for itself,” she said.
“All of things that I have done as a volunteer-on my own time, not getting paid for it-shows my commitment to the town.”
And what she doesn’t yet know how to do, particularly in the area of grant writing, Williams said she’s more than willing to learn.
“I am willing to do any kind of training and education,” she said. “And I know that the commissioner and the city administrator are very willing to see me learn as much as I possibly can.”
Williams said the fact that she’s technologically savvy will aid in the learning and networking processes.
“When you have access to the World Wide Web and you’re not afraid to use it, then you’ve got the entire world at your fingertips,” she said. “So I think that probably is an advantage-I’m willing to try anything.”
Phone calls, industrial fairs, trips to Topeka-Williams said she’ll be making every business connection possible to get the word out that she’s here to represent Marion as a great place to grow.
“The fact that I live here, the fact that I love it-I can sell that to other people,” she added.
“I think that I can convince businesses why the quality of life would improve for them and for us if they moved here.
“It’s just a small-town atmosphere that could offer so much more,” she added. “And we’re taking steps in the right direction to be a more progressive town.”
One of her first projects in her new positions will be to conduct a feasibility study for creating a community daycare center.
“We need to determine if that is something that we want to pursue and then follow up on that,” she said. “That will probably be one of my first jobs as eco-devo director.”
From there, Williams said she’s open to ideas for what Marionites would like to see in their town.
“I will head up the eco-devo advisory board, which will consist of members from local businesses,” she said. “They will be the prime source for what my expectations should be.”
Williams said she would still like to see Marion County hire its own eco-devo director for her to work with on the bigger picture of economic development in the area.
“I was a big proponent of the county hiring an economic development person,” she said. “I felt it was important for the individual cities to have an economic development person for the county person to work with in that aspect.”
The system could provide what Williams sees as an optimal blend of competition and cooperation within the county to bring in residents and businesses.
“The bottom line is, if someone wanted to move to Marion County, it would still be up to the individual cities to sell themselves to that person,” she added.
“But any economic development in any part of the county is going to benefit the county.”
As far as Williams is concerned, the sky’s the limit for Marion, although she warns it could take a while for visible fruits of her labor.
“It could be a long-drawn-out process,” she said. “To not allow enough time for the position to prove itself could truly be detrimental to the position.”
But Williams said it’s possible she expects more of herself in 2006 than even her employers do.a”I don’t know how much they actually expect to get done in a one-year contract,” she said. “But I have big dreams and big hopes.”