Williams Ready to Take on Role as EDA Chief

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Jay Williams says he is ready to get to work immediately now that the U.S. Senate has confirmed him as assistant secretary for economic development in the U.S. Department of Commerce (READ STORY), where he will lead the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Reached late Wednesday while vacationing with his family in Florida., Williams said he is grateful to the Senate for the confirmation, which validated the confidence President Obama demonstrated by nominating him. “EDA is an exceptional agency with exceptional staff and team members,” he said. “Under the leadership of Secretary [Penny] Pritzker at Commerce, it’s an exciting time and I’m eager to get to work.”

Williams sees his new role as a “perfect fit” with his past experiences, having spent nearly 15 years focusing on economic opportunities in distressed communities. After working in banking, Williams was director of Youngstown’s Community Development Agency. In 2005, he was elected Youngstown mayor, a position he held until selected as director of the Department of Labor’s Office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers in 2011. Obama nominated Williams, who also served as deputy director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House for a time concurrent with the Labor Department post, to the Commerce job last year.

“It’s all about facilitating opportunities in distressed communities,” helping to shape the environment to attract private investment, working with stakeholders to put together a vision and plan and figure out how to bring federal resources to assist, he said. “And most importantly be a facilitator.”

For decades Youngstown was the “poster child” for disinvestment, and while challenges remain, the community has put together a vision that, while evolving, “has changed the story” from one of failed policies to a story about a community “that is very much leading to new investment and changing how it is perceived," he said.

Williams spent the past couple of weeks getting familiar with the agency. President Obama “has laid out a very clear agenda of building a strong middle class and providing economic mobility,” and Pritzker has “put forth an agenda that America is open for business,” he said.   

“There are priorities of continuing the economic recovery that we’ve seen over the past five years of the administration, doing what we can to facilitate private investment, increase opportunity, promote job creation,” he continued. “Those remain top priorities of the administration.”

Local economic development leaders greeted news of Williams’ confirmation with excitement.

“It’s absolutely fantastic news,” said Tom Humphries, president and CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. “I don’t think they could have picked a better man. ... I’m just elated that the federal government recognizes talent and they’ve promoted talent.”

Williams understands the challenges and opportunities facing communities like Youngstown “so he’ll be able to relate to a whole lot of cities across the country,” the chamber CEO said.

And while Williams will have an agenda that is nationwide in scope, being able to have access to someone in his position can be helpful. “You can’t sway his mind because he has other responsibilities but you hope to get an audience with the person that’s the decision maker and this allows us the opportunity to do that,” Humphries said.

EDA already is involved in several important projects in the region, said Sarah Lown, senior economic development manager for the Western Reserve Port Authority.

An EDA planning grant is being used to fund economic development in the city and with Williams’ leadership at the agency “hopefully we can maybe replicate that partnership” to do the same thing in Warren, she said.

The region also has applied with Pittsburgh to EDA for one of 12 “Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership” designations.