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Gilbert looks back on time as PEDC director

Steve Gilbert_3About a week after transitioning from public to private sector, Steve Gilbert said he is proud of what he helped accomplished in his time at Paris Economic Development Corp.

Gilbert’s last day after four years as director of the Paris Economic Development Corp. came Jan. 28. He started work with HWH Group as a vice president Jan. 29.

“I turned the light off there, packed up my stuff and turned on the light here the next morning,” he said. “Didn’t miss a beat.”

HWH Group helps with site selection, which Gilbert said is a major part of economic development. The company also helps with finding incentives and new market tax credits.

“All EDC people want to develop a relationship with site consultants because they bring deals,” he said. “I’m just working on the other side of the table.”

Gilbert often refers to economic developers and city managers as the country’s highest paid migrant workers.

“That’s a joke, but not too far from the truth,” he said. “Those jobs in the public sector and public spotlight are important jobs. If you’re doing something, and you’re affecting changes, you’re going to step on toes and offend some people.”

Things were frequently tense for Gilbert in his last months with PEDC, and he actively sought other employment. He was a finalist for a job west of Fort Worth that didn’t pan out. The week he was to interview for a job in Oklahoma, he got offered the job at HWH Group.

“My family and I came here here not knowing much about Paris, Texas, but we like it here,” he said. “Usually when you finish a job like PEDC, you move on. My family and I feel really fortunate and blessed that this opportunity came open at HWH Group and we can remain part of this community.”

Gilbert said when he started in 2010, the first thing to do was to finish separating PEDC from the Lamar County Chamber of Commerce and create a standalone entity with its own budget and financial reporting.

“When I arrived at PEDC, there wasn’t a lot of ‘deal flow’ — there weren’t projects in the pipeline,” he said. “Paris wasn’t really on anyone’s radar screen. We went about reestablishing relationships and putting Paris on people’s radar.”

Since then, Paris Economic Development Corp. has done quite a bit that he is proud of, such as the effort to get about $5 million in local matching funds needed for the Texas Department of Transportation to greenlight the $34 million widening of Highway 24. PEDC spearheaded the effort to secure commitments from Paris, Lamar County, Delta County and Cooper.

“It’s neat to be part of a project that will last forever,” he said. “it showed everybody could come together for a common goal.”

Finally getting the last 10 miles of highway turned into a four-lane divided road will make a big difference, Gilbert said. The highway will be safer, and Lamar County will benefit economically, as well, he said.

“One of the criteria we would see time and again in competition for economic development projects was ‘are you on a four-lane highway?’” he said.

PEDC has helped with other matters, such as capital investments at Kimberly-Clark, two new lines at Campbell Soup and expansions at local manufacturers like T&K Machine, Potters Industries and Bodyguard Truck Accessories.

“These are projects we spent a lot of time on,” he said. “These will pay dividends to our community for a long time to come.”

Gilbert said he was also glad he was able to participate in two Lamar County Days events. The Chamber of Commerce will continue with planning and execution of the event, and he hopes PEDC will stay involved.

“It’s important we let our elected officials in Austin know we are here,” he said. “As a community, we set priorities for the legislative session, and we go down there to make it happen. That’s how things get done.”

The former PEDC director said he was proud and a little disappointed in the way the corporation’s business plan evolved. PEDC worked with the community to develop the plan in 2011, he said.

“We gathered a lot of input, and ultimately through that process, we put together an economic development plan we put into practice in 2012,” Gilbert said.

The business plan focused on food and consumer goods marketing for the city’s economic development efforts. Many of Paris’ existing industries, such as Campbell Soup and Kimberly-Clark fall into that categories, and the local work force is geared to support them, he said. The plan also looked for ways to take advantage of local resources, such as an abundant water supply, and helping small business through a business incubator.

Changes in the board of director’s makeup resulted in a new focus for PEDC, and many of those efforts were abandoned, particularly the incubator.

“If you pay attention to what the economic development world is talking about, for a year or two, Paris was doing all the right things. We were focusing on business expansion and retention. We were focusing on small business in the incubator.”

A similar shift in focus came with PEDC’s marketing efforts through Retail Attractions. PEDC cannot spend money on incentives for retail projects, but previous boards decided to use marketing funds to hire Rickey Hayes’ firm to market Paris to developers. As with the incubator, the board more recently felt such expenditures were beyond the corporation’s legal purview. However, Gilbert said he was proud of what the effort accomplished.

“We were marketing Paris and the strength of our community and local economy to developers and real estate brokers and retailers,” he said. “We told Paris story over and over.”

He recounted a recent meeting with with a real estate broker for a restaurant chain out of Dallas. In discussing available sites, the broker started hinting at details at another project in the works. It turned out he had heard about it in a conversation with another professional at a meeting in Dallas.

Such word-of-mouth experiences show that Paris is getting more attention as a place to do business.

“In the time I’ve been in Paris as an EDC director, I made an impact in some ways, so it was all worthwhile,” he said. “I hope the PEDC finds a good director and continues to do what they’re there to do.”

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