The Memphis/Shelby County Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) is the agency that should take the lead in driving economic development locally, according to a study of four cities of comparable size and demographics.

EDGE is the agency that is controlled by the Shelby County Commission and the City Council, but in a recent interview with The New Tri-State Defender, Community LIFT president Eric Robertson said the questions are and remain this: “Is it our lead agency? Who gets to set the strategy?

“Our recommendation is EDGE should be that group.”

The study was commissioned by the Community LIFT Corporation — also known as LIFT (Leveraging Investments For Transformation) — which emerged out of a citywide planning process called Greater Memphis Neighborhoods. Its mission is to revitalize neighborhoods through strategic investments in the areas of human capacity-building and economic and community development that result in sustainable thriving communities.

The study comes amid discussions and some measure of disagreement about the scope and future of economic development in Memphis and Shelby County.
Dubbed “Searching for Economic Development Equity,” the goal was to contribute to and enlarge the scope of the local community dialogue on economic development.

According to the overview, it is meant to inform the Memphis community and decision-makers of how four other cities — none in Tennessee — have approached economic development.

A key finding of the report is that EDGE is not adequately positioned to steer local economic growth or to expand its current economic development activities.

“The other (cities’) agencies play a bigger role in establishing economic strategy, priorities and coordination and they are empowered by and receive funding from local government to be the lead drivers of economic growth,” the study concluded.

The four agencies in cities of comparable size and demographics were Invest Atlanta, Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, and the New Orleans Business Alliance.

Robertson said the study showed Atlanta and St. Louis as two cities that stand out the most as models for Memphis.

“The mayor of Atlanta is the chair of the organization and the city council,” Robertson said. “(In St. Louis), their agency is more of a regional agency. They also have targeted areas that are distressed areas. This idea of having a regional approach make some sense to me as well.”

The Memphis region has some “trust and relationship issues” that make a regional approach a challenge, Robertson said.

The study detailed that agencies in the other cities use a variety of traditional and nontraditional tools, in addition to tax abatements, to implement their development strategies, particularly with regard to neighborhood and small business development.

The report reaffirmed Community LIFT’s “fundamental belief” that support for small businesses and neighborhood revitalization is essential to economic development.

It recommends that the city and county, through their committees, establish a broader definition of economic development that is inclusive of small businesses and urban areas.

It also recommended that the city and county charge EDGE with using the broader definition as a guide to developing a strategy that includes target industries, priorities, activities and the staff capacity necessary to execute the strategy.
Among the recommendations:

• EDGE should work in partnership with other local entities to devise the new strategy, which should align with Memphis 3.0 and each suburban municipality’s economic development strategy.

• The city and county should work with partners to ensure that the strategy is adopted and funded and that they charge EDGE with developing policies that integrate the Shelby County Office of Comprehensive Planning, Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development, and Workforce Investment Network, along with each suburban municipality’s economic development agency.