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Think ‘region’ while focusing on workforce, says Mayor Strickland

Mayor Jim Strickland says Memphis needs to think regionally and “tear down the silos” of business competition when it comes to economic development.

Addressing the Shelby County Commission’s Task Force regarding EDGE (Economic Development Growth Engine) on Wednesday, Strickland said, “I think we need to change that whole mindset that’s dogged Memphis for 20 years.”

The County Commission task force was formed to help bring some cohesiveness to efforts by the Greater Memphis Chamber, the city, the county, EDGE and other entities involved in industrial and community development.

Strickland said the City of Memphis has been working for a couple of months on a set of concrete steps “to improve our community’s entire economic development ecosystem.”

“I’m all about consensus building and usually that’s done best behind the scenes,” Strickland said. “And that’s what we will continue to do.

“We look forward to seeing your proposals and what we would like to do is work with the county administration, county commission, our administration, Chamber of Commerce, EDGE and your group to try to come up with a plan that we all can get behind.”

Strickland said economic development is bigger than just incentives and recruiting.

“It’s about a holistic view of improving our community,” he said. “The quality of life in our community, starting with our work to reduce violent crime, reduce poverty, improve educational outcome, all of these things work together.”

The number one challenge Memphis has in economic development is its workforce, he said.

“We need stronger coordination to make sure we’re doing the most we can on improving our workforce and we’ve been given an extraordinary opportunity,” Strickland said. “Governor (Bill) Haslam and the state legislature have made community college or tech school free for anyone who already doesn’t have a certificate.”

Economic development is not all about attracting new businesses, he said. “We must grow our existing businesses. Seventy-two percent of recent job growth has come from existing businesses,” he said, adding that his was through programs where “many of you we’ve partnered with…”

He said an example is the 800 Initiative, where the idea is to take a business with one or two employees and grow it to a business with 25-plus employees.

“…With all that said, we can do better attracting and recruiting,” he said.

Efforts to attract and recruit should be informed with cutting edge research on what sectors to target that offer the best match for our city and its citizens, he said.

“We must insure that we have the staffing and organizing in place for a seamless process. …And …there must be accountability for all parties involved.”

Memphis has momentum, he said, with 15,000 more people working today than two years ago and $13 billion in building projects.

“Recently we were ranked #1 for black-owned businesses and we were ranked in the top 10 for jobs available to the public,” he said. “So we do have momentum but we are committed to accelerate the growth we’ve seen in our city and I believe we can do that by reaching consensus on the particulars.”

Task force member Carolyn Hardy asked what is being done to help grow existing businesses?

“The biggest part of it is workforce,” he said. “Nine out of 10 businesses I visit in Memphis say they can’t find enough qualified employees. FedEx at the Hub is hiring 12 months a year…So, we have to improve our workforce starting with pre-K and going on through to high school.”

Strickland said the Community Builder Pilot that EDGE created has helped a lot. He said the 800 Initiative that the city is teaming with the county on to grow African-American businesses should help as well.

Strickland said that as mayor he needs to make sure that he hires the right people and that they are held accountable. He said the city has to provide the infrastructure to support economic development and make sure it is delivered on a practical timetable for businesses that are trying to expand or to locate in the city.

The county commission task force later discuss several issues that impact economic development and voted unanimously to approve a list of recommendations that will be shaped into a resolution, subject to revisions that reflect changes that came out of their Wednesday discussions. The task force meets again for a final vote Nov. 13.

The recommendations include enhancing business attraction and business retention/expansion efforts, reviewing and improving the PILOT Incentive program and an outlined plan for developing a more skilled and available workforce.

Reflecting on Strickland’s presentation, Al Bright Jr., chairman of the EDGE Board, said, “I’m glad there is an effort for a certain cohesiveness between the mayor of Memphis and the mayors of other cities but we have to get to a point where we have a plan regarding economic development, and I don’t see a plan yet.”

Calvin Anderson, a Greater Memphis Chamber member and president of Best Media Properties, The New Tri-State Defender’s parent company, said, “I thought it (Strickland’s presentation) was good on the principles that were laid out and obviously all of us are looking for some consensus around economic development and truly it is team Memphis area working on it and not Memphis working against any other community or any other community working against Memphis.”

Commissioner Willie Brooks Jr., who chairs the task force, said he was glad Strickland touched on the importance of infrastructure in attracting new business to the area.

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