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No time for ‘silos’ with billions in play for economic development

Pivoting off recently announced new leadership at the Greater Memphis Chamber, conversations were called for with Black Business Association’s Ernest D. Strickland, Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum’s Jozelle Booker and Stephanie Alexander with the Memphis Area Minority Contractors Association. 

The three entities – BBA, MMBC Continuum and MAMCA – have formed a collaborative to get the most for their members and the African-American community from BlueOval SK, downtown development and transportation act funding.

On Tuesday (Dec. 13), Ted Townsend becomes the chamber’s president/CEO, succeeding Beverly Robertson. The next day Gwyn Fisher, Greater Memphis regional director for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD), takes over as chief economic development officer at the chamber, the position being vacated by Townsend.

Framing the recently-formed collaborative and the chamber transition are billions of dollars in business opportunities.

Jozelle Booker (Photo: mmbc-memphis.org)

“Right before our Economic Development Forum, the Downtown Memphis Commission announced $6 billion in Downtown capital investment, and then BlueOval is $ 6 billion, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is probably around $8 billion for the State of Tennessee,” said Booker, MMBC Continuum’s president/CEO.

Soon after Ford announced plans for BlueOval City, general contractors for the project were contacting The MMBC Continuum, the BBA and MAMCA.

“We were all on a call, and I said to myself that we have an opportunity to mess this up if we try to attack this in silos, where MMBC is working with a group and BBA is trying to work with the same group and other people are talking to MAMCA,” said Booker, who serves on the chamber’s board.

“We formed what we’ve coined as the Mem Collaborative. We are working together to make sure that whether it’s a member of MMBC or BBA or MAMCA, we want to make sure that minority businesses have access to these opportunities.”

Alexander, MAMCA’s executive director, amplified: “It’s very important that the three organizations come together to show our leadership and moving forward with BlueOval. That was the reason for the collaboration because we know that it’s such a big project and that we wanted to make sure that the minority contractors and the minority vendors got a chance. … You got three independent organizations coming together to try to make a difference.”

Ford’s BlueOval City electric vehicle manufacturing campus is the single largest private investment in Tennessee history and Ford’s history. The campus near Memphis begins production in 2025 and is projected to result in 6,000 direct jobs, with Ford suppliers expected to bring thousands of additional jobs to the region.

In June, the Chamber outlined its Prosper Memphis 2030 plan to grow Memphis by 2030. It includes these goals: 1) add 50,000 jobs, with half going to minorities; 2) add 700 advanced industry companies; and 3) graduate 20,000 students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics annually, with 45 percent of those degrees going to minorities. 

The Chamber’s economic development work, headed by Fisher, is to play an important role in helping the region meet those goals.

“What the Greater Memphis Chamber team has accomplished despite the pandemic and its aftereffects is nothing short of amazing,” Fisher said. “Memphis is increasingly becoming a destination of choice for advanced manufacturers, especially in the areas of supply chain and logistics, agribusiness and food, medical device and health care technology, and music. 

“My top priority is to accelerate that growth, which will result in even more opportunities and access to prosperity for all of Memphis.”

Incoming at Greater Memphis Chamber: Ted Townsend, president/CEO; Gwyn Fisher, chief economic development officer. (Photos: Greater Memphis Chamber)

Strickland, BBA’s president/CEO, noted Townsend and Fisher’s long history of working together on major projects and added that both have “high-level economic development skills, relationships and passion for Memphis.”

Referring to Robertson, Strickland said her tenure as chamber president/CEO came at “a critical time” in the Chamber’s history. 

“Her ability to have hard conversations, raise funds and engage key audiences will benefit the organization for years to come. Her legacy is definitely cemented,” he said.

Ernest D. Strickland (Photo: linkedin.com)

“We (BBA) look forward to working closely with the Chamber as we roll out our strategic plan, Memphis Restart in 2023. Our goal is to showcase how our work aligns with the Chamber’s overall economic development vision.”

Strickland said at the BBA, which recently became a chamber member, “creating wealth in the Black community is our North star. I’m eager to strategize on how we can all work together to put major economic development points on the board in Memphis. BBA members will benefit from our organization having a voice, as we serve as a thought leader in economic development.”

Alexander said the previous chamber leadership engaged MAMCA “in all of the CIP projects, anything that was going on far as capital improvement projects.”

Stephanie Alexander (Photo: linkedin.com)

While the organization had not yet heard from the new chamber leadership at the time of the interview for this story, Alexander was on alert for the outreach.

Acknowledging the opportunities on the horizon, Alexander fielded a question about historical challenges facing MAMCA members and African-American contractors generally.

“Labor and capital is going to always be my number one,” she said. 

“We’re working with William R. Moore (School of Technology), we’re working with TCA (Tennessee College of Applied Technology) and Shelby County Schools to help build the labor force.”


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