When Gene McGee was growing up, he had no political aspirations and thought he would make a career out of music. However, after graduating college, he entered the business world working in insurance and investments — still without interest in politics. After marrying, he and his wife, Jane, moved to Ridgeland in 1971 and became heavily involved in the community and passionate about quality of life in the city.
Being such an integrated member of the city, McGee was first elected an alderman. That is when he began being contacted by many people about running for mayor. After plenty of prayer, McGee said it became obvious it was what he was supposed to do with his life.
“I ran for the first time not knowing anything about political campaigns, and it is a wonder I won but I did,” McGee said. “That was in 1989, and I’ve been mayor ever since.”
He had a vision for what he wanted Ridgeland to be, set out to accomplish it and has succeeded in many ways. Prior to becoming mayor, McGee wanted to create a climate that would cultivate a good relationship between quality commercial development and residential spaces so they could “live in harmony together.” The second goal he had was to improve education opportunities for Ridgeland’s children. He wanted to create development in Ridgeland all while keeping taxes low but quality of life high.
“That is what we have done,” McGee said. “I felt like my background in business would help me work to provide a business-like atmosphere for the city and that was one of the reasons I ran. I wanted to fight to get us some additional schools, which we did. We got a new high school, middle school and elementary school. All those things I thought were important.”
To improve the quality of life, McGee said he has worked to improve the aesthetics of the city and protect land values, provide great businesses, keep crime low and promote the health of the community.
The mayor worked to create a new ordinance that would improve the city’s aesthetics by bringing new businesses to the area while not cluttering the city. It allowed for businesses to be developed in a way that would be pleasing to the eye, which, in turn, also raised the property value.
“When I first got elected mayor, there were a lot of these temporary A-frame signs on trailers and things and we don’t have those anymore,” McGee said. “We went through a study to show that by not having clutter, but having good quality signage, it was better for the businesses and the customers. We try to be sure as businesses develop that it is special. We don’t want it to just be thrown up there in a way that is not pleasing and doesn’t increase property values.”
He is still working on redeveloping areas that have become run down or aged. One of his current focus points is developments on the east side of Ridgeland, and he is working with landowners to make steps for redevelopment.
“We’ve had to look at how we are going to work to redevelop that and now we are seeing some really good things happening over there,” McGee said. “But that really has been the biggest challenge we are having right now to be sure that it develops and continues to grow like it needs to be.”
One of the mayor’s biggest accomplishments in his opinion is Highland Colony Parkway. It has been growing the past few years and is a focal point of the city because of the new businesses it is bringing in. This all in turn keeps taxes low for residents, which is something difficult to accomplish while providing high standards of services.
“To keep quality development and provide the services that citizens need but yet keeping taxes low is challenging,” McGee said. “They expect good streets, good water and sewer, places to shop and eat, good recreational parks and so you have to provide those and citizens deserve those but then you have to pay for those. So you have to be sure that you are able to balance that out without having to burden them with heavy taxes.”
While one of the most challenging things for the mayor to do while accomplishing his goals is keeping taxes low, he is able to do this by providing development such as Highland Colony Parkway.
“I built Highland Colony Parkway, which is a great development and I’m really proud of that,” McGee said. “I think quality development and growing the city the way that we’ve done but yet keeping taxes low and services high is a big accomplishment. “
In his 32 years as mayor, he has never raised taxes and he said that is because they have brought in quality business and those retail businesses pay sales tax which helps them to have the budget they need to do what they need to do.
“A lot of cities haven’t been able to do that and have not planned ahead,” McGee said. “We look out to the future and try to plan ahead so when opportunities come. For instance, federal grants we might maximize with local funds and be ready for those. We really try to look to see what our challenges are going to be for the next few years so we can attack those and plan for them.”
One thing important for the city’s residents and in recruiting businesses to come to Ridgeland is keeping crime rates low. This is something that is a priority of the mayor and he has been successful in lowering crime year after year. McGee said Ridgeland has a great police department that makes Ridgeland “one of the safest cities around”.
“When I meet with a person that is going to work for them, I emphasize to them that we want to be sure we are serious about crime issues but we do it in a professional way and I think our men and women do that,” McGee said. “We just don’t have a lot of crime at all.”
McGee said he recently was talking to management at Northpark Mall and they discussed how little crime happens at the shopping center. While there is the inevitable shoplifting that happens in all retail areas, that pretty much sums up the crime happening at the mall, McGee said.
“It is one of the safest places in Mississippi to shop and it is because we put a lot of emphasis on it and be sure that criminals know, if they come here, they’re going to get in trouble,” McGee said.
The Mayor’s last piece of the puzzle to quality of life, but certainly not least, is the health of the community. McGee himself said he cycles a minimum of 30 miles every day before coming to work and goes for even longer on the weekends. One of his goals upon becoming mayor was to have Ridgeland recognized as the healthiest city in Mississippi, which he has accomplished twice and received Blue Cross Blue Shield grants as a result.
“I feel very strongly about good health is a part of the quality of life,” McGee said. “That is the reason we built multi-use trails and good parks.”
One important key to a healthy city is providing opportunities for people of all ages and physical abilities. McGee said Ridgeland has sports and programs for children all the way up to the older generations. Ridgeland also became the first city in Mississippi to provide a baseball league for those who are handicapped.
“It was called The Challenger League and now of course it is called The Miracle Field,” McGee said. “In The Miracle Field, they can be in a wheelchair or be blind or have other mental problems and participate.”
McGee said he makes a point of encouraging citizens to be active and take advantage of the many programs and trails that Ridgeland provides. Whether you ride the Natchez Trace, walk Northpark Mall in the morning, or participate in programs, there are plenty of opportunities to be healthy in Ridgeland.
“You can’t have quality of life if you don’t have good health,” McGee said.
Even with all he has accomplished, he isn’t done yet making improvements to the city and more exciting things are still to come. McGee said he still refers to the master planning process the city went through in 2008 and remembers residents wanted a performing arts center. Those plans are in the works. It will be located in the southwest corner of the same land the new city hall was built on last year.
“We are actually meeting with people that may want naming rights to see if we can come up with some funding,” McGee said. “It is going to be an expensive project but we believe we can pull that off too.”
McGee said there is another change coming in that Ridgeland has never had its own downtown area and he would like to see that change. He is currently working to put together a proposal to hire someone to create a concept to turn Jackson Street into a downtown pedestrian-friendly area.
“That will be a big step we are going to be doing over the next year or two,” McGee said.
He believes Ridgeland is the place to be in Mississippi with low taxes and high quality of life. He said there are the best restaurants in Mississippi and the greatest shopping. He also said they have good employees that care for the city and want to make sure everything is done right.
“You can’t beat it,” McGee said. “It is a great place to live for sure.”
In 32 years, McGee has made Ridgeland into what it is today and accomplished many of his goals that he set out to before becoming mayor. He credits his success in life to being taught to have a high work ethic and to work hard. It may require long hours and meetings he may not always want to attend, but he said he was taught at an early age that is what it takes to be successful.
“Having a strong work ethic is very important,” McGee said. “You can’t be successful without doing that.”