By Karen Campbell
Shelby Spurgeon is a study in contradictions. Long, blonde waves frame a youthful face, but a twinkle in her eyes and a knowing smile hint these are just the trappings of an old soul. Adorned in heels she clicks her way through board rooms and across barnyards and chicken houses without a step of hesitation. She even named Nellie, her golden doodle, after her favorite hip hop artist, but only listens to country.
She can walk from Gleason to Greenfield (which she did recently in support of libraries and local news), and a week later, run a half marathon (in support of her older brother’s work with Young Life), but if you want to see her get truly fanatical about sports, ask the former softball champion about her younger brother’s baseball team and which of his teammates needs to get their heads in the game.
In many ways, she approaches her role as the county’s newest economic development director, with the equivalent of athletic prowess. She takes on working a room with the eyes of a point guard keeping the ball in play while simultaneously assessing the defensive attempt. Like the adept batter who knows the pitcher warming up favors high and inside, she adapts and delivers each presentation with researched nuance. And strategy is as much a part of her vernacular as a quarterback’s who has eyes set on the end zone.
Able to cover any number of topics in a single breath, she can even argue the merits of a good spice cake, and then melt like the gooey cheese that clings to her favorite chicken spaghetti when describing her perfect meal as she networks at one of the many county functions her role has her attending.
Without question, a key ingredient for the former Jackson native who now calls Weakley County home is passion. And she is currently very passionate about Weakley.
She hadn’t yet graduated from Mississippi State when she learned she had the role. And, while appreciative that the county economic development board saw her potential above the scores of other candidates who vied for the job, she strikes a balance between learner and professional. She is clear on her strengths — including her ability to network and the extensive relationships she’s collected as a communications major who knew the value of internships.
Her choice of universities and career paths reveal much about the way she has approached life after graduation. She describes her alma mater as a “big SEC school with a small town vibe,” and, while there, she sought ways to make a place for herself. She became active in Phi Mu, and later the panhellenic president and learned to listen to leadership and work alongside larger entities.
She continues to hone these skills as she daily interacts with leadership from either Sharon, Dresden, Gleason, Greenfield or Martin and connects the desire for new industries with the resources and relationships she developed interning at places like the Tennessee Valley Authority.
She doesn’t argue that her father Kyle Spurgeon’s role as President/CEO of the Jackson Chamber may have influenced the Weakley County Economic Development board to look her way when she first pursued the job via LinkedIn, but she’s self-aware to the point that she’s confident it is her own abilities and hard work that will make her the success the people of Weakley need her to be.
“It is what it is. My parents — dad in business world and mom in healthcare — have instilled in me that you are who you are and don’t let anyone change that,” she said of the values of hard work and faith her father and mother Julie Taylor, CEO of West Tennessee Rehabilitation Hospital, laid as a foundation for her.
Fairly transparent and without false bravado, this younger Spurgeon seems more than willing to ask questions regarding everything from growing her knowledge of what industries are possible in the area to finding the exact spot to plant her roots even deeper with the purchase of her first home.
“We have a really good school system and low cost of living,” she noted of the county’s attributes. “If we get our work force where it needs to be, we could see a lot of growth.”
To that end she has talked with school leadership and to existing businesses regarding what is lacking by way of training and motivation, and how to best address and prepare young people to assume needed roles. She points to new approaches the Northwest Tennessee Workforce Board is exploring as well. And says efforts are under way to ensure that people coming into the workforce have obtained needed soft skills like showing up on time and effective communication.
As for the area’s strengths, she lists the county’s natural resources like Gleason’s ball clay and existing industries and is currently focusing on identifying more land and buildings to entice industries to look this way. Greenfield has 91 acres for an industrial site that Spurgeon’s work with the TVA is helping to promote. Dresden is marketing 35 acres as a certified site. Martin is looking for more available land, while also seeking ways to best utilize the 100,000 square feet of the Greenball building. And she recently returned from Orlando where she was generating leads with tile companies to capitalize on Gleason’s natural resource.
She describes her work as having many “moving parts” as she moves from discussions with city boards and industrial development committees to county commissions and university staff. But in a comparison reminiscent of her softball days, she finds great strength in the myriad of voices as they ultimately reflect the power of a team.
“Economic development is a team sport, for sure,” she acknowledged. “You’ve got to have the resources to lean on and a strong team behind you. My board has been terrific help in navigating this new chapter of my life and all things Weakley County.”
She refers to Greenfield’s town slogan and each community’s great pride in their sports teams as potential enticements for professionals such as herself who are seeking a great place to live and raise a family.
“’You don’t get lost in the shuffle’ sums it up. You certainly don’t in Weakley County,” she underscored. “People care. Weakley Countians are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”
Thanks to development opportunities like Leadership Weakley County, a program of the Chamber that she joined two weeks after arriving on the job, she had almost four months of regular interactions with business leaders, farmers and the school system to obtain an in-depth look at the various sectors and how they interact. She is also soon-to-be certified in Tennessee Economic Development by the UT Center for Industrial Services. And she is already a member of the Southern Economic Development Council, the Tennessee Economic Development Council, and the Tennessee Economic Partnership.
As she continues to grow, she looks to the future and the day when she will be able to lean into one aspect of her job she has not yet had the time to develop — tourism. As an extrovert who readily admits she gains energy from being with others, she delights in sports, festivals, and the variety of activities that she keeps discovering around each corner of the county and longs for the day when a calendar of events offers individuals and families the chance to see all that Weakley has to offer from agri-business to small boutiques to local restaurants.
Ensuring economic development — from small shops to plants hiring hundreds — and realizing the promise of future tourism may be a big assignment for one person in her first full-time position, but Spurgeon isn’t daunted.
“I’m young, but I have a lot to give,” she said with characteristic passion. “Weakley County has already given a lot to me. I have no plans to leave.”
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