Joe James's rise to some of the top urban economic development posts in the nation began nearly thirty years ago, when the teachings, work, and death of Martin Luther King, Jr., deeply touched a chemistry major during his junior year at Union.
“In his later years, King was still fighting for civil rights,” recalls James '69, who is the director of the Richmond (Va.) Office of Economic Development. “But King
was also beginning to see that true freedom is not possible unless one had the economic wherewithal to enjoy it.”
James has developed one of the most impressive resumes in his field while keeping King's vision in his heart. He has held the top post in the economic development offices in three of America's largest cities and was second in command in a fourth. A career that began with volunteering in his East Orange, N.J., neighborhood has led James to help create thousands of jobs through creative partnerships between the public and private sectors.
James spends a good deal of his time working with Fortune 500 companies such as CSX, Dominion Resources, Phillip Morris, and Reynolds Metals. Still, he says he has not forgotten King's influence. “If your city's overall economic development strategy doesn't include neighborhood and minority business development, you're missing the boat,” he says.
James is one of only a few African Americans leading economic development departments in the country. But he's used to breaking new ground. At Union, he was the first African-American to pledge the Delta Phi fraternity. When the fraternity's national board heard about it, they threatened to take away Union's charter unless he was thrown out. As James recalls, the Alpha chapter decided that the national could accept all of the brothers in his pledge class or none of them, and the national backed down.
“I will forever be thankful for the support of my frat brothers during that time and during all my years at Union,” he says.
After starring in football and setting the College's discus record, James began in business shortly after he graduated. His father owned a small trucking company
in northern New Jersey and struggled to find consistent business in the then highly-regulated industry. James helped form the Minority Trucking Transport Development Corp., which guided minority trucking businesses through the lengthy Interstate Commerce Commission application process.
Forced to leave law and business school because of an injury to his father, James went to
Philadelphia, where he worked his way up to become the deputy director of the city's Commerce Department. He helped foster new forms of neighborhood economic development, including the “enterprise zone” program, where the government provided tax incentives for business development and job creation in struggling neighborhoods. The enterprise zone concept is now a central component of President Clinton's Empowerment Zone strategy to rebuild America's urban centers.
After eight years in Philadelphia, James was hired by Austin, Texas, in 1986 to organize and direct the city's Economic Development and International Trade Department. He helped attract major computer chip company investments by enhancing the relationship between private enterprise and the University of Texas; thanks in some part to his work, the Austin area is now known as “Silicon Gulch.”
Despite his success, James is quick to admit that nothing could have prepared him for working for the City of Chicago, where he led that Department of Economic Development from 1989 to 1991. An outsider in a highly-charged political environment, he found that where economic development goals often took a back seat to political turf wars and interdepartmental rivalries.
Nevertheless, his accomplishments included a 2,000-job, $25 million United Airlines Reservation Center, the 1994 World Cup to Chicago, and Chicago's first economic development marketing effort in years.
Richmond held a personal and professional attraction for James. His father had been born in the city, and his ancestors were slaves on the plantations that bordered the James River, which cuts through the center of the city and is likely his family's namesake.
Shortly after arriving in Richmond, James began the search for his roots.
“I was very close to my father's mother, who lived with my family when I was a child. She died when I was nine years old,” he recalls. “It was the first great tragedy of my life. But seeing her would-be twin some thirty years later and hearing that similar voice after so long was my most emotional experience ever.” During nearly four years in Richmond, James's search has continued, and every few months he meets a new relative who opens up what he calls “a whole new branch of the family tree.”
Professionally, James has helped transform Richmond, the old capital of the Confederacy, into a new capital of economic growth. He has formed a $10 million small business loan program in a partnership among the city and six local banks. Most importantly, he has helped existing businesses in Richmond, including health care companies, financial institutions, high-tech firms, and of course, giants like Phillip Morris.
“We're competing for business investment and jobs on a worldwide basis,” he says. “When a company weighs its investment options in Richmond, it may also be considering alternatives in Europe and other countries and cities. Richmond has to be as competitive as possible, especially now with the uncertainty about jobs that has come with corporate downsizing.”
When he isn't creating a better Richmond for his fifteen-month-old son, Joseph IV, James tries to hit the golf links in Hilton Head, SC. An avid traveler, he also takes full advantage of the perquisites provided by his wife, Denee,
a flight attendant with American Airlines.
“My son has already flown more miles than most adults,” he adds with a laugh. “I hope his options in life are just as limitless.”