LeRoy Thompson wants to give back to the region
By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, the new Regional Director for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD) described a life that has taken him from the challenges of the inner city to a career in the National Football League (NFL), work as a local developer, and now public service.
Thompson’s appointment as Regional Director for a 16-county area was announced in late September, and he started his new duties in mid-October. “It’s an enormous undertaking,” he says of the new role.
Thompson grew-up two blocks from the Five Points area of East Knoxville that he describes as a “blighted, high crime, drug- and alcohol-infested area.” Unlike many of his peers, Thompson was able to leave the area, going to Pennsylvania State University to play football and on to three NFL teams.
“I was always a people watcher,” Thompson says of the coaches and counselors he had. “They were dedicated servant leaders. As I grew older, I tried to model them.”
When Thompson’s NFL career ended, he returned to Knoxville to “take a wealth of experience (he had gained) and ply it back into the community.”
His first task was as Executive Director of the Wesley House Community Center, a 100-year old “dilapidated house not making money. We immediately turned it around,” adding new programs such as music.
Thompson later joined with local developer Bob Talbott to form a new company. Their first project was a $6 million retail center in Thompson’s old neighborhood, something that had been on the community’s priority list for 20 years. They later focused on another blighted area, the city’s Empowerment Zone, developing the Cherokee Health Systems complex that is visible from Interstate 40 in downtown Knoxville.
Thompson bought Talbott’s interest in their joint venture and continued to focus on retail developments and public projects. The world changed with the real estate recession of 2008.
“The company was diverse enough to move from at risk projects to areas like construction management,” Thompson said. Access to capital continued to be a challenge, “particularly when you are dealing with public projects.”
As Thompson considered the next stage of his professional life, he said that he ‘wanted to transition into something else, not just a job but a cause.” He found it with the ECD Regional Director opportunity.
“It’s a natural transition for me,” Thompson says. “I absolutely understand the job and what’s out there. It’s an enormous undertaking.”
He cites the “huge breadth of issues, particularly in rural counties” that are keys to success. Thompson talks about his personal goal to have his region rank first among ECD’s nine in terms of job creation and capital investment.
His strategy takes the regional strategic plan developed a year ago and focuses on “how we facilitate the plan.” Thompson talks about the importance of relationships with community leaders and public officials that is a “big aspect of this job.” He says that “they have to believe we are there to be a catalyst.”
One of the important roles for a Regional Director is to be highly visible, and Thompson admits that his perspective has changed now as he travels the roads in the 16-county area wearing his ECD hat.
“You see things differently,” he says. “How do you go about helping turn these opportunities (that he now understands) into high quality jobs?”
Thompson’s answer is a good team, which he believes he has; setting priorities; and managing his time.
Thompson is married to his high school sweetheart (Nikitia), and they have 3 children – Brooke 18, Dezmond 16, and Tionna 14.