Varied experience, long hours, love of area serve Gardner well

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 3, 2000

VIDALIA, La. — Linda Gardner has worked in just about every facet of the business world. And in her current positions as director of Vidalia Economic Development and executive director of the Vidalia Chamber of Commerce, that varied experience seems to be serving her well. &uot;I wear many hats,&uot; Gardner said Tuesday afternoon — after answering several telephone calls and sending a fax.

&uot;Sometimes I don’t know how I&160;get it all done,&uot; she added, although she acknowledged that several faithful volunteers help her accomplish much of the work.

Working in sales at Natchez Ford-Lincoln-Mercury helped her gain the skills she would need to attract prospective industries. Her work at the now-defunct Vidalia Times and Ferriday Post — photography is a favorite hobby — honed the writing skills she needs to write chamber press releases.

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She also believes time spent working at such businesses as International Paper, Britton & Koontz First National Bank and Natchez Regional Medical Center make her better able to do her job.

&uot;By working in the business field, you learn more about the concerns businesses have,&uot; she said.

And Gardner is still eager to learn more.

On days she isn’t at her office, working overtime to prepare for such events as meetings, festivals and the chamber’s upcoming banquet, she is usually traveling to numerous industry and tourism seminars in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Last week, for example, she attended the week-long, intensive New South Economic Development Course at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

That is a prerequisite to earning certified economic developer status, &uot;although that is still a couple of years away,&uot; according to Gardner.

Through organizations such as the Louisiana Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, she also networks with other chambers to trade ideas. That, for example, is how she got the idea to have an annual chamber membership banquet, complete with awards for businesses, individual Vidalians and local educators. The first banquet is scheduled for Nov. 6 at the Radisson Natchez Eola Hotel.

And to think that for Gardner, it all started with a volunteer job with the Chamber of Commerce.

In June 1998, she began volunteering with the chamber, helping organize that fall’s Jim Bowie Festival, one the area’s biggest annual tourism events.

One her biggest accomplishments was getting historian and performer Jim Edmonson to portray Jim Bowie at the festival, in a reenactment of a 1827 knife duel that, according to legend, took place on a nearby sandbar.

Then, in November 1998, Gardner turned her volunteer work into a full-time career, taking over as director of the chamber and of the town’s economic development efforts.

For her efforts, Gardner recently received one of seven Rural Tourism Success Awards from the Louisiana Sea Grant College Program, which are awarded to people who have greatly impacted tourism in their areas.

Gardner, who said she was both surprised and honored to receive the award, will travel to Covington Oct 17 and 18 to give a presentation at the annual Rural Tourism Development Conference.

And economic development efforts are paying off not just for Gardner herself, but for the town as well.

For example, work began last December on the Vidalia Landing riverfront development, and roads, lighting and other infrastructure at the site are almost complete. Local officials have been planning and seeking funding for that project since 1992.

When it is completed, the $45 million development could include a visitors center, stores, restaurants, an amphitheater, condominiums, recreational fields and other attractions. An outpatient surgical center is also in the works and an RV park should be complete by mid-October.

Gardner believes Vidalia Landing will benefit the entire Miss-Lou by attracting more tourists to spend money in the area — and that, she said, is what her work has been all about.

&uot;I try to promote the whole Miss-Lou,&uot;&160;she said. &uot;What is good for one city is good for all of us.&uot;

In fact, Gardner has not given up on the idea of a regional economic development authority similar to a private-public partnership that has attracting many industries to the Tupelo area.

She is now helping to organize a panel discussion to be held in November on regional economic development.

For Gardner, such work is part of her effort to improve a place that has been her hometown since she moved from Natchez when she was just six weeks old.

&uot;I just love this area,&uot; she said. &uot;A large part of my pay is knowing that I’m doing something to help improve my community.&uot;