The Southern Rail Commission is led by a formidable group of governor-appointed commissioners from each member state.
Claire H. Austin
Claire is the President and owner of The Austin Group — a Montgomery-based governmental relations firm specializing in public affairs, media relations, crisis communications, fundraising, politcal consulting, branding and marketing. Prior to that, she served as the Director of Public Affairs and Government Relations for the Alabama Office of the Attorney General and as the Assistant Finance Director for the Alabama Department of Finance. She also served during President George H. W. Bush's administration from 1988 to 1992 as the Director of Communications, Public Relations and Congressional Affairs for the Federal Railroad Administration. She is a graduate of Auburn University with a BS/BA in Communications and Business Management.
Bennington has served as the Director of Planning and Economic Development for the City of Anniston, Alabama since 2007. He serves on committees for the McClellan Development Authority, the Spirit of Anniston and the Calhoun County Economic Development Council. Prior to that he served as the Director of Regional and Community Planning for the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham. During that time he served as Chair of the Alabama Association of Regional Council’s Planning Task Force. He was an ex-officio representative of the Governor’s Commerce Commission in 2001-02. He served on the Board of the Alabama Communities of Excellence as well as the Task Force for the Alabama Geographic Information System Initiative. Toby was also the Director of Planning for the City of Gadsden, Alabama from 1994 until 2000. In addition to the municipal duties, he was the Executive Director of the Gadsden Etowah Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Mr. Bennington has served in comprehensive, transportation and economic development planning positions in Memphis, TN and Cincinnati, OH. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) and holds academic degrees in Public Administration and City and Regional Planning.
As President & CEO of Coastal Alabama Partnership (CAP), Wiley Blankenship oversees a private sector-led, not-for-profit organization focused on providing a platform for regional leaders to convene, collaborate, build consensus and advocate for Coastal Alabama’s top priorities. CAP brings together Mobile and Baldwin counties’ economic development groups, Port Authority, Chambers of Commerce, tourism organizations and the top business leaders to speak as “one voice.” CAP addresses issues of regional importance like infrastructure, seafood, tourism, policy and planning, the environment and wind and flood insurance. Blankenship also serves as Executive Director of Coastal PAC, which focuses on advocating for issues important to the coastal counties’ of Alabama.
Blankenship serves on the Board(s) of The Mitchell College of Business and Center for Real Estate and Economic Development – University of South Alabama. Wiley was appointed by Governor Kay Ivey to the Southern Rail Commision on August 10, 2017. Wiley also represents the interests of coastal Alabama as an appointed member of the Gulf Coast Working Group, working to restore passenger rail services to America’s Gulf Coast. He previously served on the Board of Business Council of Alabama and the Southern Economic Development Council and will be a member of the XXVIII Leadership Alabama Class.
Blankenship holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Administration from Auburn University and a graduate of the Organizational Management Institute at the University of Georgia. Blankenship lives in Mobile with his wife Marlo and their two children Allie (16) and Wilson (4).
Martin Gerald "Jerry" Gehman
Jerry Gehman is a Tribal Member of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and is President and Principal Owner of G&H Systems Low Voltage General Contractors LLC. Railroad has been his passion since Robert Martin, senior engineer of the Southern Division of SLSR Railway (Frisco) gave him a ride at age 5. Jerry has incorporated railroad in his business ventures although he has never been employed by the rail industry. While at Reid State Tech, Jerry and his brothers began Alabama Native Broadcasting Company which owned and operated WASG/WYDH for 13 years. Through radio, Jerry successfully helped Atmore secure Amtrak’s Gulf Breeze in 1989 even though Atmore was not the original selection. With a daily live “train report” from the platform Amtrak received extensive coverage and in 1991 Atmore had the highest ridership of any city of similar size in the USA. As a result, an annual railroad heritage festival began and continues today. Jerry continues to advocate for the rail industry through speaking engagements that educate and promote railroad as a great career opportunity at high schools, civic clubs and Chamber of Commerce events. His personal office is a Frisco caboose #1512. Jerry served as City Councilman 1996-2000 in Atmore. He is a member of Mennonite Christian Fellowship and has served on the School Board since 2000. He is a 36 year veteran of fire service, serving as Captain/EMT at Nokomis Volunteer Fire Department.
Larry is Director of Community Planning at Goodwin, Mills and Cawood which is an integrated architecture, engineering and environmental firm providing a comprehensive menu of professional services. He previously served as the President of the Birmingham Regional Planning Commission and also served as the principal planner for the City of Birmingham. Larry has a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree and Bachelor of Architecture Degree fromAuburn University.
Greg White, Secretary/Treasurer
Greg is a CPA in private practice in Andalusia, AL. He has worked in public accounting since 1984, serving individuals, small businesses and non-profits. He is a partner inWhite & McClung, LLC, a firm located in Andalusia. Greg and his wife Jan have a long history of church, civic and community involvement. They were founding board members of Sav-A-Life of Covington County (a crisis pregnancy center ministry). He was also a founding board member of an addiction recovery ministry (Crossover Ministry) and of the Andalusia City Schools Foundation, and they both continue to serve those organizations.
In 1995, Alabama Governor Fob James appointed Greg to serve as Chairman of the Covington County Commission, and he served in that office for over 13 years. This afforded him the opportunity to work closely with economic development in Covington County and southeast Alabama. More recently (in 2010) Governor Bob Riley appointed Greg to the Southern Rail Commission.Greg is a 30-year member of the Civitan Club, and he and Jan participate in choir and mission endeavors through their church, Southside Baptist of Andalusia. They are both graduates of Evangel University in Springfield, MO.
Steve is a Baton Rouge native and was re-elected without opposition to a second term as State Representative for District 68 in Baton Rouge. He is an alumni of University High in Baton Rouge and was President of his graduating class at LSU. Steve is an alumni of Sigma Chi and a member of First Presbyterian Church. He served as a Captain in the United States Air Force and was Head Tennis Coach at LSU, being awarded SEC Coach of the Year two times. He has been married to Gloria Solomon Carter of New Orleans since 1977; they have two children and three grandchildren. He is Chairman of the House of Representatives Education Committee and is also currently serving his second term as chairman of the Capital Region Legislative Delegation.
Tommy was recently appointed by Governor John Bel Edwards as the first Commissioner of Multimodal Commerce, a newly formed office within the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) to enhance the state’s focus on multimodal transportation.
Tommy commenced a 25 year career in 1978 with Kansas City Southern Railway Company, a class-1 rail transportation company, providing transportation solutions throughout North America. He led and directed various management positions, including industrial development, total quality management, electronic data interchange, interline service management, highway/rail grade crossing safety, government affairs and community relations.
He voluntarily left KCS in 2000, forming his own consultancy firm, Clark & Associates, LLC, specializing in government affairs, community / stakeholder engagement, multimodal transportation, and economic development. During this time, Tommy represented several governmental organizations, NGO’s, small, medium and large companies, was involved in several political campaigns, ran for political office, and was appointed by two Louisiana Governors to four gubernatorial boards and commissions, among them, the LIIEP Commission and Chairman of the I-49 North Funding and Feasibility Task Force. In addition, Tommy was a member of or served as chairman to numerous civic and community boards, as well as executive committees of various industry trade associations.
Tommy was recruited to join Petrohawk Energy in 2011, responsible for managing community and government relations in the Haynesville Shale. He was subsequently appointed and relocated July 1, 2013, as Head of Corporate Affairs, Shale for BHP Billiton’s Petroleum headquarters office in Houston, Texas, responsible for strategy and policy development, issues management, government affairs, community relations and stakeholder engagement.
Walter "Walt" Leger, III
Walt was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives in November 2007. Leger is an attorney at the law firm of Leger & Shaw in New Orleans where he practices in Admiralty & Maritime law and commercial, insurance, and complex civil litigation. A former felony prosecutor in the Orleans Parish District Attorney's office, Leger has served on the powerful Appropriations Committee, the Criminal Justice Committee, the Education Committee, the Judiciary Committee, the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, the House Executive Committee, the Juvenile Justice Implementation Commission, the House Committee on Homeland Security, and the Technology Sub-Committee of the House Executive Committee. Leger has recently been named to a special Revenue Task Force to study and review Tax Expenditures, including Tax Credits, Exemptions, and Rebates.
John Spain, Chairman
John Spain is the Executive Vice President of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, where he oversees projects that aim to solve fundamental problems across South Louisiana. John’s work has included healthcare and education reform, economic development and renewal of inner-city neighborhoods. Recently, he spearheaded a project that created the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority, which won $60 million in federal tax credits for inner city rebuilding in its first try. John’s latest projects include implanting passenger rail linking Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and master plans for the Medical District in Baton Rouge and for the lakes next to LSU.
D. Jerome Wall III
Jerome Wall served in the United States Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserve from 1966 to 1972 and was Honorably discharged. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Southeastern Louisiana University at Hammond and a Master’s degree from Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge.
Jerome served on the Southern High-Speed Rail Commission, the predecessor of the Southern Rail Commission from 2005 to 2010 and was the Chairman in 2010.
Dr. Shawn Wilson, Governor's Designee
For the past 10 years, Dr. Shawn Wilson has served as Chief of Staff for the Department of Transportation and Development, a role he filled under three Secretaries and two Governors. Wilson previously served as Executive Director of the Louisiana Serve Commission and Deputy Legislative Director for Governor Kathleen Blanco.
A New Orleans native, Wilson earned a B.A. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Louisiana. He holds a Master of Public Administration and a Ph.D. in Public Policy from Southern University.
Shawn’s community service covers a variety of personal and professional interests, including Scoutmaster for Troop 271 Boy Scouts of America in Lafayette, Evangeline Area Council of Boy Scouts Board, and American Associations of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
Edwards was named Executive Director of the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission in 2013. He leads a team tasked with operating The Port Bienville Shortline Railroad, Port Bienville Industrial Complex, Stennis International Airport, and the Economic Development Authority for Hancock County. Ashley led the effort that recently resulted in the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission receiving the Mississippi Economic Development Council’s 2014 award for excellence in business recruitment for landing SpaceX’s Raptor Engine development program in Hancock County. In February 2015, Ashley was named as one of the Top 40 Under 40 Rising Stars in Economic Development by Development Counsellors International.
Previously, Ashley served as Executive Director of Governor Phil Bryant’s Office of Recovery, where he was responsible for overseeing the closeout of Mississippi’s Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. Ashley also served as Deputy Director of Governor Haley Barbour’s Office of Recovery and Renewal, where he was a member of the team responsible for coordinating the State of Mississippi’s long-term recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
Ashley is a native of Petal, Miss. and an alumnus of The University of Southern Mississippi, where he received his Master’s Degree in Economic Development and Tulane University, where he received his bachelor’s degree and was a recipient of the prestigious Tulane 34 Award, which recognizes students for their exemplary leadership, service, and academic excellence. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Mississippi Economic Development Council, the Trent Lott Center for Excellence in Economic Development and Entrepreneurship, the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce, The United Way of South Mississippi, Partners for Stennis Space Center, and the Mississippi Enterprise for Technology.
Kay has been active with the Southern Rail Commission since 1992 and has held the position of Chairman several times. She was Pascagoula's city manager from 2001 until December 2010. As the longest serving city manager, she led countless rebuilding and grant-funded projects after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. During her career, Kell was also the City Manager of the City of Picayune, Director of Administration and City Clerk of Bay St. Louis, as well as a firm manager and senior accountant of Charles Benvenutti, CPA. She began her career after achieving a BS in Computer Science and Accounting from the University of Southern Mississippi. Kay is in the Leadership Hall of Fame of South Mississippi's Top Community Leaders and was honored by Mississippi Main Street as Public Official of the Year. She was appointed in 2011 to the Mississippi Commission for the Department of Environmental Quality.
Jack Norris is a Senior Program Manager with Covington Civil and Environmental, LLC and serves as the team lead for the firms RESTORE Act project management activities. Jack has more than 15 years of experience in managing federal and state public policy and funding initiatives.
Previously, Jack served as President of the Gulf Coast Business Council – a regional non-profit corporation which represents top business executives on issues and projects important to the economy of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Jack also served in the office of Governor Haley Barbour as Executive Director of the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Renewal, coordinating Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts for the Governor’s Office.
Prior to joining the Governor’s Office, Jack served on the staff of former Senator Trent Lott in Washington DC for eight years as Projects Director and Policy Advisor.
Jack serves on the Mississippi State Port Authority Board of Commissioners and the Southern Rail Commission.
In January 2013, Jack was appointed by Governor Phil Bryant to serve on the Mississippi State Port Authority Board of Commissioners. In December 2014, he began serving a one year term as president of the Commission.
Knox Ross, Vice-Chairman
Knox W. Ross, Jr., CPA serves a dual career as a practicing Certified Public Accountant and as the Mayor of the Town of Pelahatchie, Mississippi. As a CPA, Knox is a principal in Ross & Betts, PLLC which specializes in individual, small business, and farm accounting and taxation. As Mayor, Knox is the chief executive of a town of 1,461 located in the Jackson metropolitan area. Knox recently completed a term as the President of the Central Mississippi Planning and Development District, and has served as President of the Mississippi Municipal League. He also serves on the Executive Board of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership, on the Advisory Board of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, and as Chairman of the Jackson Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Knox has also served as a presenter on small town and economic development topics at numerous seminars and conventions, and has provided several articles on small town development to various periodicals. He also is a recipient of the Public Service Award from the Mississippi Society of Certified Public Accountants.
Knox's accounting career spans over 20 years, beginning with Ernst & Young, an international accounting firm. For the last 14 years, Knox has operated his own firm located in downtown Pelahatchie. Knox's Mayoral career began in 2001 with election to the office of Mayor. While Mayor, the Town has enjoyed unprecented growth and recognition. The Town has been the recipient of five Mississippi Municipal League Excellence Awards, two North American Development Organization Awards, a Governor's Award of Excellence for the best Rural Impact Project, a Mississippi Economic Development Council Award, a regional Governor’s Cup Award, a Southeastern Economic Development Award, and a is member of the Keep Mississippi Beautiful Hall of Fame.
Sullivan is President of the Mississippi Energy Institute, a private, non-profit business created to support research and energy policy to foster economic growth in Mississippi. Prior to his work at the Mississippi Energy Institute, Patrick served both as Policy Advisor and as Executive Director of Recovery and Renewal for Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. Serving as Policy Advisor to the Governor since 2006, he had oversight of issues pertaining to energy, transportation, environment, agriculture, natural resources, and economic development. In July 2010, he was named Executive Director of the Governor's Office of Recovery and Renewal, which is the primary entity responsible for coordinating disaster assistance, overseeing state-level response and assistance for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the April 2011 tornado disasters, and the 2011 Mississippi River flood. Patrick is a graduate of Mississippi State University with a Master of Agribusiness Management and resides in Madison, MS, with wife, Elizabeth, and two sons, Garrett and Jake.
Blake Wilson, Governor's Designee
Wilson is President & CEO of the Mississippi Economic Council, serving as only the third executive of the State Chamber of Commerce in over 60 years.
He came to MEC in 1998 from the Florida Chamber of Commerce where he served as Executive Vice President directing membership, marketing, government affairs and grassroots legislative activities.
Previously, Blake was Executive Director of Associated Builders & Contractors' in his native Delaware and prior to that, spent nearly 10 years with the Delaware Chamber of Commerce. Before entering the association business, he spent nine years as a newspaper editor and reporter.
The key focus of MEC under Blake’s leadership has been to shrink the miles that separate Mississippi and take advantage of our secret weapon – our interconnections among people – to make progress in education, economic development and business climate and image. Using technology, he has given business leaders the capability to have a meaningful voice under the State Capitol dome without leaving their desks…even in communities located far away from Jackson.
Blake lives in Brandon with his wife, Ann, a retired public school teacher. They have three grown children.