UNM economist made state 'a better place' - Albuquerque Journal

UNM economist made state ‘a better place’

Jeffrey Mitchell pictured April 18, 2016. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Jeff Mitchell was an adventurer – a word not always used to describe economists.

But, as friends, family and colleagues said, the former director of the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research was not an average economist.

Mitchell died in his home Saturday, Aug. 7, less than a year after being diagnosed with lung cancer. He was 62.

Though Mitchell’s adult life was spent as an economist, as a young adult, he hitchhiked across the United States before moving to Central America to work with nonprofits on housing and energy projects in low-income communities.

He would go on to earn a doctorate in economic geography from Clark University before working his way to New Mexico, although his love of travel and adventure would remain, according to his former co-workers and friends.

During his tenure at BBER, which provides socioeconomic data and forecasting for New Mexico, Mitchell oversaw and co-authored numerous reports that touched on every facet of the state’s economy.

“I think he’ll be remembered for basically doing what he could to make New Mexico a better place in the way that he could, and the way that he could was through his research,” BBER acting director Michael “Mo” O’Donnell said.

Some of his most prominent works included a report that examined the economic impact of arts and culture in New Mexico, which marked the first time that the state’s creative sector was examined as a fundamental economic driver, and a series of reports for the New Mexico MainStreet program.

O’Donnell said Mitchell’s work, particularly for the MainStreet project, took him to every corner of the state, something that allowed him to broaden his perspective in terms of how he viewed New Mexico’s economy.

Rich Williams, former New Mexico MainStreet director, said Mitchell’s reports helped many small towns implement programs that helped revitalize their downtowns.

Mitchell was also known for his eye to detail and his uncanny ability to spot inconsistencies in data and the stories the data showed.

“He was always trying to get to the bottom of something,” O’Donnell said.

Gillian Joyce, a friend and former student of Mitchell, said he was meticulous in his work and would often edit his presentations up to the very moment he had to present them.

“So many students and staff worked under him and benefited from his training and perspective and integrity and approach to research and policy development,” she said. “… His legacy lives beyond him in all the people that learned from his passion and curiosity and discipline and creativity.”

In his personal life, Mitchell was an avid traveler, hiker and lover of IPAs from Bosque Brewing Co.

He was also a newlywed. He met his wife, Mae Lee Sun, just before the start of the pandemic. The two married weeks after his diagnosis in November. Sun said the two bonded over a shared love of the outdoors, newspaper articles and New Mexican scenery.

“Jeff was a brilliant and profoundly compassionate, as well as adventurous person, and we connected immediately,” she said.

Sun said that his compassion extended to all of his relationships.

“He cared about the community deeply, and yet he always really wanted to make sure his friends and family were OK,” she said.

There will be a private Buddhist memorial service for Mitchell held at the Albuquerque Zen Center at the end of the month.

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