When news spread through the Mississippi business community that MDA executive director J.C. Burns had been fired Oct. 3, many people were disappointed, but not entirely surprised.
“I was real fond of J.C. and thought he did an outstanding job,” said Sen. William “Bill” Canon (R-Columbus), vice chairman of the economic development, tourism and parks committee. “I liked the fella. However, the decision is up to the governor. We gave him that chore and I have to go with it. But if he could find anybody better, Mississippi would be in unbelievably great shape.”
In a press release dated Oct. 3, the governor’s office announced “a change in the position of executive director of the MDA … effective immediately.”
“I appreciate the service J.C. has given to the state over the past 20 months,” stated Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. “At this time, however, I believe a change is necessary. It is important for the citizens and business community of the state to have full confidence in our economic development efforts.”
When asked why Burns was fired, John Sewell, spokesperson for the governor’s office, declined to comment.
At an afternoon press conference the same day, Burns said, “It is with great sadness that I inform you that the governor has terminated my services as the director of the MDA. And it is even sadder that I have lost what I have considered to be a great friendship with Governor Musgrove. The governor and I have a difference in management style and some political and philosophical differences. I had hoped that we could work those out, but unfortunately the governor has terminated my employment. I find this particularly difficult due to the personal hardship that I am also now facing.”
Canon said he didn’t believe Burn’s termination was because of any personal problems. Burns filed for bankruptcy protection last month.
“A lot of people in Jackson have more personal problems than he could have possibly had,” Canon quipped. “I haven’t heard anything about a reason, absolutely zero. We’d heard that this was coming down the pike, but nobody gave our group any reason why.”
Two days earlier, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered a stay of further proceedings in the eminent domain case concerning landowners and the Nissan automotive assembly plant being built in Madison County.
A source in the attorney general’s office who demanded anonymity said the deal was “mishandled from the beginning. Had the attorney general’s office been involved from the start, some situations could have been fixed.”
On the day of the ruling, Sherry R. Vance, director of communications for MDA, said in a prepared statement, “This ruling … will further delay developing the project site and infrastructure and may have devastating effects to the costs and timeline.”
Jimmy Heidel, former executive director of the then Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development under Gov. Kirk Fordice, was surprised to hear about Burn’s departure. After a moment, he said, “My first thought is that, with everything going on with the Nissan project, there’s going to have to be movement pretty fast to get somebody in there to replace him that’s knowledgeable and can continue the economic growth of the state.”
Robert Ingram, executive director of economic development for the Center for Community & Economic Development at the University of Southern Mississippi, said economic development is a difficult profession with a high turnover rate at the upper level of both local and state economic development agencies.
“It is a profession which requires one to satisfy both private sector and political constituencies and the job increases in difficulty when the economy falters,” Ingram said. “J.C. did some great things and I hope he will be remembered for those successes.”
Burns was appointed executive director in January 2000.
“During my tenure with the MDA, it has been my job to build bridges, not to burn them,” Burns said. “We talk about infrastructure development every day and provide funds to build bridges and other structures, but the most important bridge we can build is between people. Some of those bridges we have built have been with our Legislature and other leaders across the state. It has been an honor and a privilege to work with the lieutenant governor, the speaker, the Legislature and the staff at MDA for the citizens of Mississippi.
“We have achieved a great deal for the citizens these last 18 months and I hope to continue this work. MDA was named as one of the top 10 economic development agencies in North America last year and was credited with landing one of the largest projects in the world when Nissan chose Mississippi. All of the work related to this project to date has been completed on time and under budget.
“The project put Mississippi on the map and opened doors that have never been opened before. We have several other major projects and prospects that we are developing all over the state right now and I am truly sorry I will not be part of this. However, I have every confidence in the staff and MDA to see that these projects go to completion. I want nothing but the best for staff at MDA, the Legislature and the great state of Mississippi.”
Steve Hale, senior policy advisor for economic development on Musgrove’s staff, will serve as interim director of MDA until a new executive director is named.
Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, said the state economic organization “enjoyed a great relationship with J.C. Burns.”
“But we also view the governor as the chief economic development officer in the state,” Wilson said. “Like a coach, the governor has to determine who’s going to do best on the field at what time and who’s going to most effectively carry the ball. J.C. gained some significant economic development yardage during his tenure, but now it’s going to be up to somebody else to carry that ball closer to the goal under the latest economic development game conditions.”
Wilson said he’s worked with Steve Hale and will continue to work “to keep the ball going and give him our full support.”
Canon said he has not been given any indication of Burn’s permanent replacement.
Ingram added, “Governor Musgrove is very much in tune with Mississippi’s economic development needs and I am confident he will appoint a successor to J.C. who will build on our many positive attributes and lead us to a higher level.”
Calls to MDA’s public affairs office were not returned by press time.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.