JACKSON — On April 18, just days after legislators slashed the Mississippi Development Authority’s budget for the new fiscal year, executive director Bob Rohrlack fired two longtime employees — deputy director Jay C. Moon and administration director Mike Larsen — saying the two jobs had been eliminated.
The move caused speculation inside and outside the state about the motives and the timing of the firings, which happened a month after Mississippi lost a bid for the new Hyundai plant — a process already mired in controversy — and six months after Gov. Ronnie Musgrove fired Rohrlack’s predecessor, J.C. Burns.
“Whenever there are changes at the top of an economic development organization, it’s noticed in the consulting business and economic development circles,” said Mark Sweeney, consultant with Greenville, S.C.-based McCallum Sweeney Consulting Inc., who worked on the Caterpillar project in Oxford under Gov. Kirk Fordice’s tenure.
“It does happen a lot in other places and doesn’t necessarily stand out, but the fact that J.C.’s departure was a degree less than amicable and appeared to be somewhat controversial, it’s certainly noted and generally not a good thing for the state,” he said. “Having done a lot of work in Mississippi, Jay’s departure is particularly surprising to me and somewhat disappointing. Jay was a very, very competent person. I can’t understand the logic behind it.”
When Musgrove fired Burns last October, rumors flew that the governor was unhappy when Burns refused to terminate Moon. Sources close to the situation confirmed that Moon and Larsen were two of several people on what they called Musgrove’s “hit list” for employment termination inside the agency. Larsen had been with the agency since 1988.
On both occasions, Musgrove denied that he called for Moon’s ousting and said it was an MDA personnel matter.
“Typically, if there’s going to be a change of people who serve at the will and pleasure of the governor, that usually happens pretty quickly after taking office,” said Sweeney. “You don’t look to see that happen three years into his first term. I’m assuming this isn’t a traditional house cleaning. I’m presuming there’s more to the story, but I don’t know what it is.”
Mike Randle, publisher and owner of Southern Business & Development magazine, based in Birmingham, Ala., said Moon had problems working with Burns and Rohrlack.
“Something’s up when you have problems with two people,” he said. “That’s a negative reflection on Jay. However, I like Jay. I think he’s great.”
Moon was a veteran of the Mabus, Fordice and Musgrove administrations.
“Jay did well with Jimmy (Heidel, MDA chief under Fordice),” Randle said. “Let’s face it. Jay’s been around. He knows what’s going on.”
One possible scenario: could the problem have been between Moon and Musgrove and not the executive directors?
“Could be,” said Randle. “Ronnie’s a real hands-on guy, a real micro-manager. He’s got to be in the thick of it. Nothing’s wrong with that. He’s going to do it his way…Usually the best ones are because they’re sticking their necks out. But to some people, it may be, ‘Why don’t you let us do our job?’ In a lot of cases, it’s because I can do it better than you.”
With a new man at the top — Rohrlack took over Dec. 1 — Moon represented continuity and long-term experience in Mississippi, said Sweeney.
“For consultants like us who work on projects in Mississippi sporadically, having someone with that type of experience was very valuable,” he said. “From the outside looking in, it’s not going to help Mississippi, certainly not in the short term.”
Randle said, “Jay’s leaving is not a huge story. He’s a project manager and project managers leave all the time. It’s not like he was the director.”
Speculation about tension between Musgrove and Rohrlack is unfounded, Randle said.
“Bob would never show tension,” he said. “He’s as laid back as you can get. Bob’s a pro and has been at it a long time. He’s very level headed. He did a great job when he worked in Florida.”
Moon was credited as a key player in Mississippi’s successful bid to land the $930-million Nissan automotive plant in Madison County.
“It was very hard to win that project,” said Sweeney. “It’s hard work to keep up with demands. Those guys, including the governor, worked very hard as a team. They were all singing from the same page.”
Mississippi has continued to rack up accolades for the Nissan project. In an issue of Southern Business & Development that will be released later this month, Mississippi will be recognized for gaining more jobs and investments per capita than any other Southern state.
“Every year, Southern Business & Development ranks the top 100 deals in the South for the previous calendar year using a points system,” said Randle. “Any deal creating over 483 jobs with a minimum investment of $78 million made the list. Those deals counted as 10 points each and just-missed deals counted as five points each. Mississippi was one of only three states that performed about normal, meaning the recession didn’t really affect it.”
Only three states made the cut. Florida, which won state of the year, had 685 points. At the time, Rohrlack was senior vice president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s Committee of 100 and Tampa Bay International Trade Council. Virginia, with an honorable mention, had 515 points. By comparison, Georgia, which normally accrues around 380 points, only had 175. Mississippi had approximately 240 points, Randle said.
“In a recession year, y’all did well,” he said.
While the results are impressive, others insist trouble is brewing.
“When you get a great project like Nissan, it’s supposed to launch the state into bigger and better things, but it seems like economic development in Mississippi has been in turmoil for a year,” Sweeney said. “It’s really a shame.”
Calls to Moon, MDA and the governor’s office were not returned by press time.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at (800) 993-3392 or firstname.lastname@example.org</a.