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Social services chief Jelena Payne shifting to new economic development role


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After grappling full-tilt with pandemic challenges for the last two years, the city’s commissioner of human and health services Jelena Payne is shifting to a new job with new, but equally formidable expectations.

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She was announced Thursday as the first-ever commissioner of economic development and innovation, charged with diversifying and growing the city’s economy and attracting high-quality jobs. As such, she’ll be leading several city departments that drive the city’s growth, such as planning, building, information technology and a new economic development department. Her blueprint is the Windsor Works plan approved by council last year to diversify and strengthen the local economy.

The Windsor native and University of Windsor grad starts the job April 4 after more than nine years heading human and health services. Hers is the department that has faced the brunt of the pandemic, from opening emergency and drop-in shelters for the homeless, to running isolation and recovery centres for both the homeless population and foreign agricultural workers.

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In late 2020 when the city’s Huron Lodge home was hit with an outbreak, Payne pulled a regular shift at the long-term care home to help with a dire staff shortage.

“It was all hands on deck,” she said Thursday. “I lead by standing beside people, not in front or behind. So if there is a crisis I will be on the front lines until we’ve managed that.”

Jelena Payne, shown on Thursday, February 17, 2002 at Windsor City Hall has been named as the city’s new commissioner of economic development.
Jelena Payne, shown on Thursday, February 17, 2002 at Windsor City Hall has been named as the city’s new commissioner of economic development. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

She said anybody whose job is supporting human lives has been incredibly busy over the last two years.

“But I’m not naive enough to think this (new) position will be any less. It’s a different kind of busy, that’s all.”

Last June, council approved a city hall reorganization that included the new economic development commissioner. After a “thorough national search over several months,” it was agreed that Payne had the required experience, proven track record and “unique collaborative leadership style,” said CAO Jason Reynar.

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Payne, whose experience includes senior management positions with big-name food and beverage companies in the U.S., as well as senior positions within various Ontario ministries, said Reynar initially approached her in December about taking the job. She was initially reluctant.

“We still were in the thick of COVID and my team and I had been on the front lines for the last two years. I definitely felt a commitment there, I wasn’t sure it was the right time,” she said. “But conversations continued and my interest continued to be piqued with every conversation.”

Many issues within her department, especially those involving COVID, have recently been stabilizing.  She said she’s now really excited about the challenge before her.

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“This is about the future, this is about modernization, this is about championing and work that’s already begun and moving it forward. This is about building teams,” she said.

Reynar, who arrived at the city last April from the Town of Innisfil, said he’s impressed with the skill set Payne brings. Her new job isn’t just about following the planning and building rules when it comes to new applications, he said.

“It’s about facilitating growth and the ability to create relationships and collaborate across different community partners and players in the economic ecosystem,” he said. “It takes a certain personality and a certain skillset, and I know Jelena has that.”

Mayor Drew Dilkens said the national search drew a number of candidates, but none who hit the mark perfectly. Then the thought turned to who the city has internally, and Payne came immediately to mind. She’s performed exceptionally and in the last two years showed she can perform even more exceptionally in a crisis, he said.

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The mayor said one thing the city has not done well is encourage staff to try different roles in different departments. Instead, they’re channelled, sometimes forcing them to look elsewhere for a new challenge. That unfortunately happened recently with senior manager of asset planning Melissa Osborne who has taken a new job with the Town of Amherstburg, he said.

The mayor said this new role will give Payne a chance to reset after two very difficult years.

“She’s just done a great job,” said Dilkens. “And this is not trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. This is actually taking the round peg and putting it in the round hole and giving her an opportunity to spread her wings.”

He said he has “all the confidence in the world she will be successful,” especially with her valuable experience in the private and public sectors.

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Payne said she sees herself and her new role as a perfect marriage. “Because I’m going back to my roots and my experience, but in my hometown now. For me, that’s incredibly exciting.”

Taking over for Payne temporarily is executive director of housing and children’s services Debbie Cercone, who was set to retire March 31 but was convinced to stay on as interim commissioner until a permanent commissioner is hired. Having Cercone fill in is a “tremendous relief to me,” said Payne.

“Debbie is incredibly brilliant, hardworking, dedicated. She knows the division and so we are hoping for a very seamless transition.”

bcross@postmedia.com

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