YORK – Jim Noel is straightforward when explaining how his career path switched from city manager/county administrator to economic development.
“I recognized I have probably more aptitude for economic development, and it fit my personality better,” he said. “It had elements of all the things that I enjoyed: marketing, public relations, a lot of public speaking. I enjoy public speaking.”
His time as the York County economic development director, which began in 1993, is ending with his retirement on June 1. His presence will be missed. He’s been behind a number of successful projects, perhaps none more so than Riverfront Landing along the York River.
Noel was involved in the project from beginning to end, yet called his role “small.” He was quick to credit others for what he called “a stellar development, one of the best things that ever happened to York County.”
York County administrator Neil Morgan has worked with Noel the past seven years, and has known him for about 20. He gives Noel much credit for Riverwalk Landing.
“That’s just not the kind of thing that the private sector would have done,” he said. “It’s good for tourism and all that, but its first mission was to create a place that all York County citizens want to take their visiting friends and family to and say, ‘This is York County.’”
Noel grew up in Lancaster County, PA, and attended Shippensburg University. He worked for the city of Lancaster, PA for a brief time before moving to Virginia Beach, where his parents had retired. He soon landed a job at the city of Portsmouth. One of the benefits was the city would assist in Noel’s costs for higher education, so he enrolled at Old Dominion University, earning a master’s degree in public administration. Through the program, he interacted with a variety of city departments and their employees.
“I enjoyed the challenge of thinking about running a community and all the strategic planning and looking forward,” he said. “It’s a very challenging job, and it intrigued me. That’s the direction I thought I wanted to go.”
That was until he was exposed to economic development. He liked working with the private sector, but he also enjoyed the stability of a government position.
“It was the best of both worlds in my mind,” he said.
After 14 years with the city of Portsmouth, where he worked for the mayor’s office, in the parks and recreation department, and in community development, Noel left for York County. He thought of his new job as being a type of salesman, which appealed to him. That was his father’s chosen profession, and Noel always admired him.
“There’s an element of selling your community,” Noel said. “And it brought all those private sector elements that I liked, but working within the public sector fold.”
Almost 30 years later, his fingerprints are all over the county. In addition to Riverwalk Landing, his other successes include attracting Great Wolf Lodge, revitalizing a number of shopping centers, the development of the Edge District, and numerous redevelopment projects. Among the latter is Casa Pearl on Merrimac Trail in Greater Williamsburg, where an old gas station was converted into a popular and different type of restaurant.
“That wouldn’t have happened without Jim’s support and with the EDA’s backing,” Morgan said, adding Noel’s strategy of combining EDA seed money with capital from the owners has been successful.
There have been a few bumps in the road. He wanted to redevelop the salvage yards on Route 17 into retail or a mixed-use office project. The struggles at the Marquis Shopping Center gnaw at him.
“That was just a timing issue,” he said of the Marquis. “But that’s been very disappointing. That’s a project that could have been really special, and the recession just killed it.”
Those situations, ones brought about through no fault of his or the county’s, are the hardest parts of the job.
“It’s tough to take sometimes,” he said. “And the fact that you lose a whole lot more than you win. You have to get used to that.”
Some economic developers, he said, often get caught up in the deal and lose sight of the biggest picture.
“It might not be the right project for your community,” he said. “You may think it’s a good deal. It has many things going for it, but it may not be a good fit. You just have to let it go. That’s hard to do sometimes.”
However, when it does all come together, it’s a pleasure.
“The rewarding part of the job is when you actually see a company grow, and seeing those business owners and their employees prosper,” he said.
There are physical parts of that success that also serve as reminders.
“You actually see buildings go up, and you can drive by there and say, ‘I had something to do with that going in there,’” he said.
Again, he stressed it was a team effort.
“I never deluded myself that this was done by me alone,” he said. “You never do anything alone. You depend on many other people.”
Hie doesn’t have a lot of plans for his retirement, other than to spend time with his wife, children, and grandkids. He and his wife live in Upper York County. His children and grandkids are in Richmond and Virginia Beach. He also plans to play more golf, and will do economic development consulting work for local governments.
“But I’m going take a little time off before I jump into any of that,” he said. “Then we’ll see how things shake out. If things work out, and I enjoy it, I’ll continue. If not, well, I may go a different direction. I’m not holding myself to anything right now.”
Just don’t be surprised to see him in the area. When Morgan thinks of the name Jim Noel, he thinks of one thing:
“An enthusiast for all things York County.”
The county’s residents were fortunate that is where his career path led him.