The National Audubon Society’s decision to abruptly dismiss the director of its local Pascagoula River Audubon Center had local leaders calling for a change in ownership as late as Wednesday afternoon.
But by Wednesday night, things had changed and a spokeswoman for the local advisory board said they want to work with Audubon and the new interim director to “make the center flourish” under the Audubon name.
The local board is meeting with Audubon officials on Friday in Moss Point.
Amy Brandenstein, who is both on the center’s advisory board and in community relations with the center’s major contributor, Chevron Pascagoula Refinery, said “we’re all working together and want to make it sustainable.”
Earlier in the day, a member of the local advisory board said elected officials and the bird-watching community, bookends for the center’s support, had expressed outrage to the local board about the decision by National Audubon to remove Mark LaSalle.
It happened in early June and was reported two weeks ago. Word spread quickly.
Wednesday afternoon, advisory board member Steven Renfroe said reaction came because LaSalle had been the driving force behind the center, was very popular in the community and is a “likeable guy.”
“This could have been done differently,” he said. “There could have been a transition, and everybody would have been good about it.”
Instead, there were shout-outs on Facebook supporting LaSalle.
Jackson County Supervisor Ken Taylor’s June post calling for Audubon to reinstate LaSalle and transfer ownership to a local public or nonprofit agency was shared 206 times within a few days.
Taylor posted that Audubon had been unresponsive to local inquiries. He cautioned the organization that local trust in Audubon would deteriorate “to the point it could seriously inhibit future fund raising.”
On Wednesday morning, Taylor said it didn’t look like Audubon would rehire LaSalle and “they will talk about it, but they aren’t excited about giving the Audubon Center back.”
By Wednesday night, Renfroe had resigned from the advisory board and Brandenstein said the center’s advisers were on board with keeping the center under Audubon and she had met twice with the new interim director.
Jackson County Supervisor Randy Bosarge told the Sun Herald that he believed the Board of Supervisors would follow the advisory board’s lead.
Audubon is a national organization with a network of centers around the country. Its name recognition is a large part of the draw for the center. It’s like the difference between having a McDonald’s and having a local hamburger restaurant.
The Audubon center in Jackson County, like other centers, was almost totally paid for by local fundraising efforts yet it is approved and overseen by the national organization.
Former director LaSalle, for more than a decade, championed the construction of the center, which opened in 2015 on the banks of a bayou near the Pascagoula River in Moss Point. He helped wrangle more than $4.5 million in federal, state and local funding. He had been the public face of the center.
According to county officials, the center still has a reserve fund of more than $1 million, is flush and is viable.
Why LaSalle was let go is still a mystery, because neither he nor Audubon regional officials were talking about it. He did accept a severance package.
In a statement to the Sun Herald in late June, LaSalle pointed out the value of having an Audubon Center here, calling it “one of the most important conservation and nature-based facilities in the region and country; a world-class example of both and a valuable asset for Mississippi’s One Coast concept.”
The first open sign of movement will be Friday, when Audubon’s Doug Meffert, vice president of the Gulf Coast and Mississippi Flyway, will come to Moss Point.
“It’s our intent to see the center successful and sustained,” Meffert told the Sun Herald, calling the center a collective effort. He expressed no intention of letting it go.
“We have such a long and proud history in the Gulf of Mexico, and Mississippi is a major part of that,” he said.
“What I love about Audubon is we are local and a long-standing national and international brand. It’s the best of both worlds. We stay local, but we’re part of something larger.”