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Economic Development Forum provides setting to make sense of ‘opportunity’

Gov. Bill Lee and Mayor Jim Strickland talked “opportunity” at the “Power Breakfast” that opened the Wednesday session of the Mid-South Minority Business Council (MMBC) Continuum’s 15th Annual Economic Development Forum.

“It’s not the lack of ability people have, but the lack of opportunities to use their strengths and talents (to build wealth),” said Lee, the opening speaker at the Renasant Center downtown.

Lee thanked MMBC for the work done thus far to advance minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs) and touted the state’s diverse-supplier record.

“We’ve increased the amount of minority- and women-owned business engagement with the state by 44 percent in four years. … We now do in excess of $1 billion of state contracts with minority- and women-owned businesses.”

Go-DBE, the website for the Governor’s Office of Diverse Business Enterprise, defines the term “minority” and provides DBE requirements and procurement opportunities.

“MWBEs make up an important part of the state’s economy as job creators,” said Lee, who acknowledged the difficulties MWBEs face with access to capital and professional services. He stressed being deliberate about removing barriers.

“If we’re ‘intentional’ and actually engage (MWBEs), we can make a difference.”

Fixing workforce transit issues

Jozelle Booker, president and CEO of the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum, prepares to cut the ribbon on the 15th Annual Economic Development Forum with some high-profile help, including Mayor Jim Strickland. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley/The New Tri-State Defender)

During Strickland’s tenure, the City of Memphis increased MWBE contracts from 12 to 24 percent, but work continues as cities such as Atlanta boast 30-plus percent MWBE contracts.

At the “Power Breakfast,” Strickland called Memphis an “opportunity city” and gave a local jobs report.

“We’re at an all-time high on the number of jobs filled in Memphis in its history,” he said, detailing that the city gained 24,000 jobs on top of 40,000 restored after the pandemic.

Still, transportation issues complicate the view of Memphis as an “opportunity city.” About 15 percent of the city’s drivers can’t afford reliable cars, plus expenses.

“Our public transportation system is not good. That’s not breaking news,” said Strickland, who then touted Memphis’ first dedicated funding for Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) and a new transit plan that is projected to be fully completed by 2030.

The new plan promises reliability.

MATA has secured $140 million in federal and local grants to help patrons get to and from jobs. One $54 million grant from the Department of Transportation will be used to buy new buses and renovate MATA’s old operating facility in North Memphis.

Another $22.3 million grant will help MATA transition from gas-run buses to quiet, energy-saving electric vehicles. Funds will also cover charging stations and construction.

Earlier this year, MATA received a $46 million federal grant to launch Memphis Innovation Corridor – a rapid transit hub designed to reduce bus wait times.

MATA expects the monies to create 100,000 new jobs.

 EV jobs training on the way

 In early August, the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) awarded $21.5 million to Workforce MidSouth – the nonprofit replacing WIN (Workforce Investment Network). At Wednesday’s MMBC luncheon, Kyla Guyette, Workforce MidSouth president, discussed the award and agency services.

EDA funds will benefit West Tennessee, East Arkansas, and North Mississippi through Opportunity Now! – an accelerated four- to 24-week program to train the Mid-South’s electric vehicle workforce.

Kyla Guyette

“Whether or not (Ford’s) Blue Oval (electric vehicle plant) is in Stanton (Tennessee), it’s still going to have a tremendous impact on Memphis, said Guyette.

“Blue Oval City cannot be successful without Memphis.”

While Guyette knows Ford’s EV (electric vehicle) plant needs Memphis for its large populace and supplier base, she had this warning: “It’s absolutely possible for the entire West Tennessee to be booming and us to not move the needle on poverty an inch.”

The State Workforce Development Board will ensure access to Blue Oval City opportunities for everyone, Guyette said.

So far, 295 employers have pledged support for the $21.5M project.

Annually, Workforce MidSouth receives about $10 million from the state to support job training for adults and youth and ex-offender re-entry programs.

The agency also provides free services to business owners, including job posting and candidate sourcing, reimbursement for up-skill training, repayment for on-the-job training, and funding for apprenticeships.

 Sustaining jobs and MWBE growth

In May, a $25-million grant was awarded to the University of Memphis to help low-income citizens increase their wealth. The UofM partnered with Workforce MidSouth to implement GROWWTH (Growing Relational and Generational Wealth for West Tennessee Households).

Implementation includes managing $50,000 MWBE microloans (forgivable if the entrepreneur completes program steps and UofM business mentoring).

Through grants, the nonprofit will also help citizens open new childcare centers.

Guyette says the agency will support transportation needs through low-interest, down payments for car loans (despite credit score), free gas cards, and reimbursement for six to eight months of car notes.

“We want to have alternatives that put people in control of their own destiny,” she said.

For better access to services, Workforce MidSouth will erect kiosks where people live and work, and support the MidSouth Opportunity Center – the proposed one-stop site for job seekers and business owners.

The site will replace American Job Centers and expand to include business resources and incubator space, job training, and childcare.

 (For more information, visit www.workforcemidsouth.com.)

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