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Plans for EDGE makeover leave blacks out of conversation – again

Melvin Jones

by Melvin Jones, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

The demand that African-Americans work for free (slavery) expired in 1865. But that hasn’t stopped some white business leaders from consistently and collectively denying African-Americans opportunities to increase their wealth.

These efforts were usually organized or supported by the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce (GMCC) and its lineage. They have succeeded. Today, African-American businesses receive less than 1 percent of gross business receipts in metro Memphis, according to the United States Census Bureau.

On this foundation, come now Richard Smith, chairman of GMCC, Phil Trenary, GMCC president/CEO, and City Council Chairman Berlin Boyd.

With his power lineage and position, Smith decided the fate of African-Americans without having one conversation with an African-American business person, group, professional, clergy or individual. Smith’s proposals for attracting businesses to Memphis include:

1. Firms receiving millions in tax breaks to relocate to Memphis will not be required to contract with African-Americans.

2. GMCC will develop a database of African-American businesses and exclusively decide which, if any, African-Americans will be selected and offered contracts.

To accomplish their goals, Smith, Trenary and Berlin plan a hostile takeover of the Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) of Memphis and Shelby County. EDGE is the quasi-public agency charged with incentivizing and supporting economic growth and job creation. This takeover involves forcing Al Bright, Jr., a brilliant African-American attorney, to resign as board chairman. Their command is “resign or else.” Next, they will fire Reid Dulberger, the equally brilliant EDGE executive director. These men are experienced and have done an exemplary job. I understand and believe these fine men will be replaced by neophytes, David Waddell and Shea Flinn. Waddell and Flinn have zero experience in this area, but will be made chairman and executive director. They are “rich and elite” and will do the bidding of the rich and elite. Then, “no Blacks allowed” can become the official hidden policy.

The explanation for this change, according to Smith in The Memphis Business Journal, is that African-Americans are the albatross around Memphis’ neck. Memphis’ progress is destroyed because firms relocating here must contract a small percentage with African-Americans. These firms receive great wealth and opportunities from Memphis but, according to Smith, African-Americans must be excluded from the economic growth of the city for Memphis to grow. Really! That plan has failed for 200 years.

Leadership is the issue. How could a leader even conceive — far less draft — such a plan? Need we remind: “I AM A Man.” This violates the most basic rules of leadership but is consistent with the traditions of Memphis. Make decisions without any thought to faith, fairness or impact on opportunities for African-Americans. Other leadership styles have produced bustling metropolises such as Nashville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Atlanta and Birmingham — all of which Memphis was once equal or superior to in comparison. These cities have embraced the African-American community and their progress has left Memphis far behind. “Embrace diversity stupid.”

A false foundation is being built and myriad disastrous outcomes await. Here are my 12 observations concerning the new plans for EDGE and the impact:

1. In America, spending with African-Americans has been a settled question for four decades. Memphis, Shelby County, Memphis Light, Gas and Water, Memphis Airport, Tennessee Valley Authority and every local government agreed with the “new day” and started to spend with African-Americans. Their minority- or women-owned business enterprises (MWBE) percentage of annual spending far exceeds FedEx and GMCC.

2. To allow GMCC to decide which African-American businesses receive contracts will indeed be “the fox guarding the hen house.” The GMCC track record is horrible in this space.

3. Smith’s plan will send a message to all Memphis firms that spending with African-Americans is neither necessary nor preferred.

4. By securing support from the city, Smith will cause local MWBE programs to slow or come to a halt because GMCC will decide winners and losers in contracting. It is preposterous on its face. This will mean any growth in African-American revenue will be determined by the powerful.

5. The plan will stifle growth of African-American businesses now and going forward. It will be the first crafty step on a slippery, disastrous slope.

6. Smith claims that recruited firms will do more voluntarily and will exceed any requirements. Really? Enough said!

7. Boyette Strategies was hired to determine whether a change in policy would benefit Memphis (i.e., determine whether African-Americans are the problem, the albatross). We understand that Boyette Strategies is a “site selector.” This is obviously a conflict of interest. That is because a negative decision toward African-Americans will benefit them.

8. Disparity studies by the city, county and Shelby County Schools have proven discrimination exists in contracting and that volunteer efforts do not work.

9. Any critique of EDGE should be based upon goals from a comprehensive economic development plan. EDGE was not created to “sell Memphis.” It was set up to manage “the incentive review” process.

10. Since GMCC cannot “sell Memphis,” we must set up an agency to “sell Memphis.” In many major cities, that role is given to a separate agency with the skill to sell the city. Since Mark Luttrell cannot sell a city that is 70 percent African-American, we must find someone who can.

11. All segments of the community must be involved in any change in policy or essential personnel.

12. Growth in the Memphis economy must be seen throughout every section of the metro area. In the past only select sections saw the economic impact.

This is the time for dialogue with the African-American community and business leaders. Unfortunately, GMCC has only spoken with people on their payroll or on a government payroll, however a private executive meeting or a town hall are the best options. In 2016, the Business Contracting Consortium (BCC) made this offer to Trenary and Luttrell, twice. They simply did not respond — typical. That door stands open. 

(Melvin Jones is Executive Director of the Business Contracting Consortium.)

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