Jason Smith, 44, started work June 17 as president and CEO of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce. He took over for Mike McMahan, who retired after 10 years on the job.
Smith brings 16 years of economic development experience. He’s helped bring in more than $1 billion in investment and more than 8,000 private jobs to the communities he’s worked for, the most recent being Lincoln, Neb., where he served as vice president of economic development for the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce.
Katie Alford, Abilene chamber board chair, said Smith’s achievement record is one of the reasons he was hired.
“He knows that member service – building business and building community – is the foundation for a successful chamber and a successful community,” she said.
The Abilene Chamber of Commerce helps further the interests of businesses. It provides opportunities for training and networking for its 1,200 members. The chamber also oversees the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council and the Abilene Industrial Foundation, which works to retain and expand businesses.
Smith was drawn to the job in Abilene because it was an opportunity to lead a respected chamber in an area of the country he grew up in and where his family still lives.
“It is great to be home!” he said.
The change in leadership at the chamber brings new perspective.
McMahan was a former Dyess Air Force Base commander with a distinguished 32-year military career. Smith is a former journalist turned economic development guru.
He grew up in Grandfield, Okla., 30 miles north of Wichita Falls, where his family owns a farm and ranch. His brother, Justin, is the lead singer and guitarist for the Dallas rock band Bigloo. Smith said he enjoys making music, too. “I play guitar terribly but enjoy trying,” he joked.
After high school, he earned a degree in communication at Cameron University in Oklahoma and started a career in newspaper journalism. He spent six years at the McAlester, Okla., newspaper writing sports stories and working his way up to managing editor.
His most memorable experience was covering the execution of Steven Hatch at Oklahoma State Penitentiary. The circumstances surrounding Hatch’s crime, conviction and execution are the subject of a movie called “Heaven’s Rain.”
Smith left the newspaper in 1997 to become the executive director of the McAlester Economic Development Service. He worked on 10 major private sector projects that led to 2,000 new jobs and more than $500 million in investment in the city.
His other achievements in McAlester include leading efforts to pass community initiatives for a cancer center, wellness center and technology center. He also led the effort for a 15-year sales tax to fund economic development that passed with 60 percent of the vote and provided more than $600,000 annually in funds.
In 2004, Smith moved to the Nebraska state capital to become the vice president of economic development for the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce. The city of 260,000 people is best known for its salt marshes, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, low unemployment and its proximity to the University of Nebraska. It’s also ranked as one of the best places in America to do business.
During his tenure at the Lincoln chamber, Smith worked on more than 85 projects that created 7,000 new jobs and more than $800 million in new capital for the city.
The Lincoln chamber was cited for excellence in 2012 by the International Economic Development Council and “Business Facilities” magazine. The city was praised for aggressively pursuing new jobs. In 2011, Lincoln was recognized as a finalist for Chamber of the Year by the American Chamber of Commerce Executives.
Wendy Birdsall, Lincoln chamber president, told the Lincoln Journal Star in June that Smith is “intensely loyal” and “committed to doing the right thing” for a community.
“He is extremely bright. I dubbed him ‘Yoda,’” Birdsall said, referring to the Jedi master who dispenses wisdom in the “Star Wars” movies.
Smith said his goal for the Abilene chamber is to expand its programs and take the organizations it works with to an even higher level.
“We will only accomplish this by adhering to the core principles of a chamber of commerce: We are a membership organization made up of Abilene businesses and organizations dedicated to improving the quality of life and standard of living for all Abilene region residents,” he said.
He thinks the best way to achieve these goals is new job creation and private investment.
“However, the landscape has changed,” Smith said. “Successful communities take a holistic approach to economic development and understand that all aspects of community life factor into economic success.”
One of the reasons he likes the Abilene chamber is because it has already grasped this approach through its relationship with the convention and visitors bureau, cultural affairs council and industrial foundation. He cites Jim Clifton’s book, “The Coming Jobs War,” as a must read for understanding the holistic approach to economic development.
Smith also is impressed with the Abilene chamber’s relationship to Dyess Air Force Base and the military community.
“We should never lose sight of the importance of the military in this community,” he said. “This is an area where the chamber has outperformed its peers, as evidenced in the fact that the trophy given to the most supportive community in Air Mobility Command is named the Abilene Trophy.”
Smith said he’s looking forward to building relationships with people in the community and building the chamber’s presence.
“I feel truly blessed to be given an opportunity by the board of directors to lead the Abilene chamber.”