JACKSON — Three days after the $1.3-billion Nissan plant opened in Canton, and three months before the gubernatorial primaries, Robert Rohrlack became the second chief of the state’s economic development department to leave office during Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s tenure.
Even though Musgrove released a prepared statement praising MDA chief Bob Rohrlack, whom he said “has been a tremendous part of our effort to build Mississippi and … has done a fantastic job,” and Rohrlack issued a press release stating that “excessive time away from my family has caused me to make a tough decision today … it’s important to me that I spend more quality time with my family,” some sources say there was more to the situation than a mutually agreed-on parting of the ways.
A fuzzy picture
This much is clear: early Friday morning, May 30, the governor paid a visit to Rohrlack — at Rohrlack’s request. After a closed-door session, Musgrove emerged, stopping to chat with several employees and backslapping others on the way out. He was, as several folks noted, “all smiles.” A few minutes later, Rohrlack announced his resignation.
“I was on a TV show with Bob Thursday night (May 29) and he didn’t seem to be troubled by anything,” said Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council. “He did a superb job on ‘Statewide Live’ talking about Nissan’s impact on the state economy and didn’t say a word about quitting. The first I heard about (his resignation) was Friday morning.”
Speculation swirled that Musgrove pressured Rohrlack to resign after 18 months on the job but key personnel said that’s not true.
As this issue of the Mississippi Business Journal went to press, calls to the governor’s office had not been returned.
In October 2001, after 20 months on the job, Musgrove fired MDA chief J.C. Burns, a former banker from Batesville, who was widely credited with helping land Nissan, and hired Rohrlack, a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi’s economic development master’s program and president of the Alliance for Economic Development, an alliance of the Gainesville (Fla.) Council for Economic Outreach and the Gainesville (Fla.) Area Chamber of Commerce.
“This is part of the transition you get when you hire a commodity like a Bob Rohrlack, who’s a very strong talent,” said Wilson. “With his age and the level of his career, he’s going to move on. The good news is the state has a system in place and MDA won’t miss much of a beat. But Bob sure did a great job.”
Burns, who has been very successful working with companies and communities in Mississippi on economic development and business issues through his company, Burns Development Group, since leaving MDA. said the time requirements for the executive director’s job “are strenuous at best, and I understand Bob was a dedicated developer. He will be missed.”
When the Mississippi Business Journal interviewed Rohrlack soon after he was named Burns’ successor, he was adamant about doing his job well and making time for family life with his wife, Sue, and their three sons Tommy, Stephen and Bobby, then ranging in age from six to 10.
“I made it clear with the governor that as much as he can count on me to be there to get the job done whenever it needs to be done, my sons need to know that I can still be their soccer coach or whatever they need,” he said. “(The governor) was very supportive about that. He expects people to have a private life and still get the job done.”
“When I first read that article, I thought Bob just didn’t understand our governor,” said a long-time economic developer. “There’s probably some truth to the family thing, but I suspect the governor told him, ‘I’ve gotta start having you travel with me on the weekends,’ and Rohrlack just wasn’t going to do that.”
A source close to the situation said promises made by the governor to Rohrlack “never materialized” and Rohrlack realized they never would.
“All of this is designed for re-election, of course,” she said.
When Rohrlack took the job, he was asked if Musgrove’s reputation for being a micro-manager would hinder his ability to do the job. “I’m not worried about that at all,” he said. “When you asked me about the governor being a micro-manager, I laughed because I think anyone who knows the governor knows he is moving too fast to micro-manage.”
On April 18, 2002, just days after state lawmakers slashed MDA’s budget for the new fiscal year, Rohrlack fired two longtime employees — deputy director Jay C. Moon, who is now head of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, and administration director Mike Larsen — saying their jobs had been eliminated.
When Musgrove fired Burns, sources said the governor was unhappy when Burns refused to terminate Moon, who was on a short list of MDA employees targeted to be fired. After the fallout from the firing of Burns, who was perhaps more well liked and respected by his peers than the governor realized, he nixed plans to fire additional MDA employees, sources said.
Even though the atmosphere at MDA was not a homey one, the tension is more heightened now. “They’re going to do what people say,” said a former employee. “It’s self-preservation right now.” Two months ago, a current staffer commented: “I’m keeping my head low. They’re shooting
real bullets up here.”
A prominent economic developer in Central Mississippi said many economic developers around the state “are sick about the situation.”
“But we have to tolerate Musgrove,” he said. “He controls $40 million in new CDBG money, $10 million in new rural development money and can spend every bit of it between now and elections to get votes. That’s the power of a sitting governor. I can’t afford to say anything publicly about him or not work with him. No one else can either because he’s holding the access to the grants that make things happen.”
Some polls show that Musgrove is trailing Republican gubernatorial challenger Haley Barbour by a substantial margin and speculation about the reasons why another high-level appointee defected may become a factor in the governor’s race.
“It’s going to make people think, what kind of governor is this when he can’t even keep people in key positions? His state financial officer, Gary Anderson, is leaving and running for state treasurer. He’s had a lot of problems with his human services director. An awful lot of people are jumping out of the bowl,” he said.
A North Mississippi economic developer said Musgrove could have gotten more mileage from bringing the Nissan plant to Mississippi “if MDA had not been told to restrict the location of Nissan suppliers.”
“If they’d worked hard to put them within a 100-mile radius of Jackson instead of sending out secret memos, telling folks not to show them below I-20 and things like that, he could’ve gotten a lot of good out of Nissan,” he said. “But most goodwill on that is in Jackson or within a 25-mile radius of Canton. Rankin and Madison counties are huge Republican counties and they aren’t going to give him credit for anything, so I think he has serious problems.”
Soon after accepting Rohrlack’s resignation, Musgrove named Steve Hale as the new MDA director. Hale, a former mayor of Senatobia, has been MDA chief of staff since last June. Hale also served as interim director after Burns was fired and oversaw economic development policies for Musgrove’s staff. Whether Hale is a permanent replacement or an interim di
or remains unclear.
“(Steve) is not of the profession, so his background is not in economic development,” said Michael Olivier, executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission. “If he’s familiar with economic development, it’s been as a mayor of a small town and because of his recent exposure through the governor’s office with economic development matters. I would expect that he would be asked to lead t