Joann Massey, the City of Memphis director of Business Diversity & Compliance, introduced former U.N. Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, calling him “a symbol of economic empowerment nationwide for so many years. …” (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

If Memphis ever is to reach the level of Atlanta regarding “minority business ownership,” the word “intentionality” is going to have to be embraced at a far greater level.

That was a message elevated to priority status during a Wednesday afternoon press conference associated with the fourth bi-annual “We Mean Business” Symposium put on by the administration of Mayor Jim Strickland and city partners.

The media gathering took place in the Universal Life Building, which now houses the recently renamed Fred Davis Innovation Center. Former U.N. Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young was the featured attraction.

While Young did not say “intentionality” directly, the experiences he drew upon from his days at Atlanta’s mayor seemingly screamed the word.

“One of the keys is that when the businesses came in (Atlanta), they couldn’t just do business with white people, or basically white men,” said Young. “We had an affirmative action effort. …”

Referencing the purpose of the symposium, Strickland said it was to “expose the opportunities we have in Memphis for African-American-owned businesses and women-owned businesses. In city government in particular, we’ve grown our minority contracting and women-owned contracting from 12 percent to 20 percent but we want to move that even higher.

“This symposium is to shine a spotlight on that and who better to shine a spotlight than ambassador Andrew Young, who helped transform Atlanta into a city that we want to be when it comes to minority business ownership.”

The numerical backdrop for the day’s focus included the dismal fact that for about 25 years one percent has been about how much business is transacted with African-American-owned businesses in Memphis, where the African-American population is about 65 percent.

Strickland, who notably is in the middle of a reelection campaign, said, “That is not fair and it’s not sustainable. …We have to grow that wealth. We have to grow businesses.”

Young said Atlanta once had “exactly the same” disparity – one percent of all business receipts going to African Americans. He linked the path forward from there first with the development of a mass transit system that twice had been rejected.

“To get the votes to pass it, we had to work out a formula that was 20 percent minority, 30 percent in the management, 20 percent in the design and construction,” he said.

Another key move was then-Mayor Sam Massell’s leadership in getting the bus fare lowered from 55 cents to 15 cents “to be fair to the poor,” Young said. “Even with all that, we only passed that referendum by 400 votes in two counties. We were the only city in America that was able to pass a mass-transit referendum in the 70s.”

Strickland said Memphis is 45 years behind Atlanta in having a first-class transit system, “Although we’ve started the transit vision as part our Memphis 3.0. We’ve identified the solution – 30 more million dollars per year to hire more bus drivers, to buy more busses, have greater frequency in coverage so that we can get more people on the busses and exposed to more job opportunities and educational opportunities. We have the plan. It’s how do we pass it.

“We’ve been working with the county, and for the first time ever the county is going to contribute some money. A referendum is a possibility but we’ve got to build public support. …”

Young said there must be a conscious effort to attract investment, adding that people want to invest “where its safe…where it’s honest.”

The development of a mass transit system and the international airport were keys to Atlanta’s growth, Young said, pointing out that he and Maynard Jackson (Atlanta’s first African-American mayor) were “blessed” to pick up from stable leadership.

Memphis, Young said, actually is better geographically located for business growth than many other places because of where it sits along the Mississippi River. Asked if the river is to Memphis what the airport was to Atlanta, Young said, “It could be.”

He lamented that far too little has been done overall to upgrade the river’s infrastructure. “We have an environmental crisis that we have to come together and do something about.”

Young has been working with 83 mayors through the Mississippi Rivers Cities Towns Initiative, which was created 8 to 10 years ago. An annual meeting is slated for Memphis in September.