County’s longtime economic development director to retire
By Melissa James, York County Contributor
“I didn’t even know what economic development was 30 years ago,” joked Jim Noel.
But he would soon realize the critical role of this program—attracting and growing business in York County, developing our workforce, creating income for community benefit, and enhancing quality of life for residents. And as luck would have it, he was a perfect fit to lead it.
Nearly three decades later, Noel has announced that he’s retiring from the career he never knew he wanted. His retirement comes on the heels of a merger between the County’s tourism and economic development departments, a step that promoted him to director of both teams. He now leaves this role in the capable hands of Kristi Olsen, who was previously manager of tourism development for the County.
What kept Noel in the same job for so many years?
“It suited my personality,” he said. “I’m very gregarious—I enjoy working with people in the private sector but also working through the government lens. Economic developers know a little about everything, but not a lot about anything!”
Noel explained that his most vital asset is knowing who and where to get information:
“Whether it’s someone at Dominion, or a patent attorney, or a real estate developer, I have a name and I can make those connections for business prospects to help them accomplish what they want to. But you also need the vision to put the pieces together, to always be thinking about what would be most advantageous for that business, such as recommending a different piece of property, or leasing instead of buying.”
Jim Noel looks out onto Riverwalk Landing, one the major economic development milestones of his career with the County.
Noel (second from right) helps break ground for Colonial Crossings in 2013, along with York County business Henderson Inc
Noel originally entered public service in Portsmouth, where he worked 14 years “bouncing around different departments.” While working in community development, he found himself in a joint project with a department called economic development.
“I was quite taken with it,” he said. “I didn’t really see it as a career path, but I thought it was fascinating.”
With a master’s in public administration from ODU, Noel was eventually hired as York County’s director of economic development. He wasted no time making an impact and would achieve many milestones for the County over the course of his career. He established York County’s first formal business retention and expansion program and was an integral member of the team that developed Riverwalk Landing, an excellent example of “community place making.” In the early 2000s, he and his team recruited Great Wolf Lodge to build a location on Rochambeau Drive, creating a $100 million investment in the region, along with many other large retailers and tourism businesses that helped expand the County’s tax base.
Noel led and directly negotiated many transformative projects—such as the Lightfoot Commercial Corridor, York River Commerce Park, the Route 17 Revitalization and The Edge District—that shaped York County into the viable and business-friendly community it is today.
For Noel, growth was not only a community goal, but a personal one. He augmented his expertise by completing the Civic Leadership Institute and LEAD Greater Williamsburg. He also was closely involved with the efforts and initiatives of the Virginia Economic Developers Association (VEDA), encouraging his staff to attend VEDA conferences, events, meetings and professional development opportunities. During his tenure with VEDA, Noel served as its 2020 president and was the recipient of the 2021 Cardinal Award—its most prestigious honor.
In a resolution released May 5, the York County Board of Supervisors stated:
“Mr. Noel is highly respected throughout the County and beyond and exemplifies the highest quality of public service, setting an example for all County staff to strive towards. Mr. Noel has earned the admiration and respect of the Board of Supervisors, and his colleagues for his professionalism, dedication, loyalty and exceptional work ethic.”
Noel demonstrates his big ideas during the Regional Economic Development Reception at William & Mary’s homecoming.
With his time at the County ending June 1, Noel said he plans to spend more time with wife Vickie and his grandkids: Ford, 4, and Lacy, 3, in Virginia Beach, and Roselle, 1, in Richmond. When he’s not taking them to parks and children’s museums, he said he’ll be working on his golf game. But don’t count him out of economic development completely.
“I hope to do local government consulting, some organizational management, and possibly some site selection for niche firms. I’m forming my own LLC,” he said.
“When I look back, what brought me the most satisfaction was helping businesses grow from startups to larger companies. Helping people be successful—that’s what drove me. And of course, the benefit to the community. Seeing people enjoy a new restaurant or retail store, seeing a company locate or expand, seeing somebody’s aunt or brother get a job there… and I had something to do with that.”