- Associated Press - Monday, July 20, 2015

CANTON, Miss. (AP) - Considered the architect of Nissan in Madison County and the dean of economic development here for the last four decades, Canton Municipal Utilities General Manager John Wallace is hanging up his hard hat.

Wallace has devoted 38 years to economic development - and is retiring from CMU for the second time.

The Central Mississippi Industrial Park at Gluckstadt was just a pasture when Levi Strauss & Co was considering building a distribution facility 35 years ago, and it was Wallace who had the vision and obtained funding to run utilities the 10 miles or so from Canton to seal the deal.

Much of Wallace’s impact on Madison County can be traced to his decision to accept the position of general manager at CMU after moving to Canton in 1977.

The city-owned utility service became the primary vehicle through which he served Canton and Madison County as head of the Madison County Economic Development Authority during the early boom years beginning in the 1980s.

Under Wallace’s leadership, Canton Municipal Utilities service area was expanded by over 40 square miles and both gas and electric systems upgraded.

In addition to MCEDA, he has chaired the Municipal Energy Agency of Mississippi, the Municipal Gas Authority of Mississippi, and many others. At the same time, Wallace served for 32 years in the Mississippi Air National Guard, retiring in 1996 at the rank of Major General.

“He is a person of great personal habits, and he has made his mark on Madison County,” said Bob Montgomery of Montgomery McGraw, PLLC. Through his efforts, the Levi Strauss & Company Distribution Center and the Nissan Vehicle Assembly Plant have come to call Canton home.

In order to convince Levi Strauss to locate at Gluckstadt, Wallace and other officials first had to secure an urban development action grant.

“The more exciting part was the hoops that we had to jump through nationally to get the grant,” said Wallace, noting that it was quite a challenge. “Putting all of that together to get the land, to get the grant, and to get them operational in the time that they wanted… Everybody was 100 percent cooperative, and that made all the difference in the world.”

Wallace’s most notable accomplishment by far has been the Nissan Canton Vehicle Assembly Plant, the first automotive manufacturing facility in the state that would not have happened without CMU.

Wallace reminisced about the economic development alliance between Madison, Rankin, and Hinds counties that revolutionized industry in the metro. He explained that the collective counties each offered a location for a potential industrial park and selected an independent agency to determine the best location.

“We were prepared when an industry the size of Nissan came along,” he said.

“We landed the largest automotive facility in the world built from the ground up,” said Blake Wilson, President and CEO of the Mississippi Economic Council. He explained that Wallace fought for the industrial park when many believed it was nothing but a pipe dream.

“What people don’t realize about John Wallace is this guy was a true pioneer for the state of Mississippi. By helping form the first economic landscape in the state, he really changed economic development all across the state.”

“He’ll never tell you any of this,” said Wilson. “It’s just not his style, but it is a fact. We are all the beneficiaries of his vision, tenacity, and hard work.”

Wallace tried to retire once before in 1998, but he was soon called back by the now late Ernest Buttross, then-chairman of the utility commission, to continue working part-time. “In my father’s eyes, John could do no wrong,” said Miriam Buttross Koury, who currently serves as chairman of the CMU board. “It was a very close mutual admiration, and each of them highly respected the other person.”

Koury was among those who spoke at Wallace’s retirement party on June 30. It was her father who first convinced John Wallace to begin a career in Canton.

In 1976, the city was devastated by a major tornado. Wallace led a team sent by the Mississippi Power Alliance to repair Canton, and Buttross soon realized that this man was exactly what the city needed. “My dad knew his family,” said Koury. Wallace grew up in Canton where he often visited Buttross Department Store. “It was like getting John to come home,” Koury said.

For 38 years, Wallace has fulfilled his role. Now, however, he feels that he is finally ready to say a permanent goodbye.

“This time, I’m not sure that we’ve got any major plans except to enjoy life and take each day as it comes,” Wallace said. He will spend more time with his wife Barbara and their three children, Elizabeth, Gary, and Gregg, each of whom currently lives in Madison County, now that his working days are at an end.

“He told me that his wife Barbara had backed him all these years in everything he did, and now it was her time,” said Koury.

Many area business owners and executives will be disappointed to see someone with such vision leave the field. “I don’t know where to start,” said Ken Oilschlager. The two have known each other since 1977 when Oilschlager began working for the Canton Chamber of Commerce and later the Madison County Economic Development Authority.

According to Oilschlager, Wallace is the true “dean of economic development” in Madison County.

Duane O’Neill, President and CEO of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership, agreed.

“I would say that John Wallace has been an extremely effective leader in many aspects, especially economic development,” said O’Neill. “I think he is proof that a humble person can be a great leader.”

___

Information from: Madison County Journal, https://www.onlinemadison.com

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