mata, workforce, and economic development
where is the advocacy?
By Joe B. Kent // Guest Blogger

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A lack of Memphis community leadership advocacy has stifled local economic development efforts. True economic development efforts support safer/paved streets, a better workforce, public transit, small business and competitive economic growth. Evidence of a lack of leadership advocacy can be found in the recent Memphis Business Journal (MBJ) “Redacted” series on the negative economic impact of inadequate public transit and funding for the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA). 
Where is the Advocacy?
In the MBJ series, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, responding to a question regarding the corporate community’s support for public transit, says in short that he has not heard from the Greater Memphis Chamber or Memphis Tomorrow on public transit. And in City of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s MBJ interview, the Mayor can be found prodding the MATA Board to advocate more for public transit. 
It’s for sure that the business community is for and has mentioned a need better public transit. But are they advocating for it? What about advocating for the win-win in the entire business community and a community in need and not for just a limited few in large corporations and real estate investors? Advocacy has been defined as follows: “the act of pleading for; supporting; or recommending; active espousal.”
Based on the Mayors’ interviews, Memphis Corporate Community Leadership is not sufficiently advocating for and making the plea for better public transit. Commercial Appeal reporter Ted Evanoff questioned sufficient local board advocacy after naming a number of non-profits in an article last year where he stated, “If you sit on the board of one of these organizations and at the end of the year your group has met its goals, maybe your group needs tougher metrics”. In another recent Ted Evanoff Commercial Appeal article, David Waddell, a Greater Memphis Chamber Chairman’s Circle member calls for advocacy by asking the question “Does Memphis really want to grow? Memphis has to decide. If Memphis is going to grow, the citizens have to speak up to politicians, support Richard Smith (Greater Memphis Chamber Board Chairman) on his mission.” And I personally wrote in the MBJ last year about a lack of leadership advocacy regarding the Greater Memphis Alliance for Competitive Workforce’s (GMACW) sluggish performance in local workforce development efforts. 
Leadership is not sufficiently advocating for and making the plea for better public transit

Where is the Advocacy for Workforce and Economic Development?
After all, the lack of economic development advocacy shows up in local Memphis Corporate Community Leadership behavior as they sacrifice support for true economic development in safer/paved streets, better workforce, public transit, small business and competitive economic growth for instead local corporate/real estate tax abatements. 
That is $85M that could be invested in economic development

This lack of advocacy and closed, non-external and largely local corporate/real estate development approach to economic development, which includes bogus incomplete accounting for retention PILOTs, cost taxpayers approximately $85M in recurring annual revenue shortfalls. That is $85M that could be invested in economic development that serves the entire business community and a community in need. 

 A specific example of the above lack of advocating behavior can be found in the historical meeting agendas of the Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) that was born out of Memphis Corporate Community Leadership’s advocacy. EDGE, who is the parent of GMACW, meets monthly to abate Memphis/Shelby County taxes for corporate/real estate PILOTs. But for some reason the pitiful GMACW Board staffed by EDGE Board members could only manage to meet one time in the last year to take up local workforce development. Where is the advocacy for workforce development?

What about Legislative and Press Advocacy?
 City Councilman Berlin Boyd has recently stated “We are in crisis mode” regarding economic development. But vital local systems in Memphis needed to fuel economic growth are not working in legislative oversight and a curious press. The Joint Memphis City County / Shelby County Commission EDGE committee has only met once since being established on March 1, 2018. This as a crisis exists and corporate / real estate tax abatements continue to explode at a significant cost to taxpayers. And the local press has yet to question the lack of meetings during the crisis.
Even during the crisis, EDGE course correction, reform and oversight discussions are not the priority on legislative committee agendas. As an example, during the crisis and the most recent County Commission Economic Development committee meeting on July 18, the priority for discussion was about local government facilitation of more corporate welfare for real estate development in Federal Opportunity Zones. 

With the legislative leadership window quickly closing with a soon to be departing experienced Shelby County Commission, local legislators have the unique opportunity to proficiently lead, curate and craft local economic development policy. Co-Chairs Commissioner Heidi Shafer and Councilman Berlin Boyd can take the lead by scheduling the Joint Council / Commission EDGE meeting to take up the oversight work that has not occurred over the past seven years.

This work should arguably start with the restructuring of EDGE whose efforts in collaboration with Memphis Tomorrow and Greater Memphis Chamber have resulted in 1) below peer average economic growth, 2) bogus incomplete retention PILOT accounting and 3) unlimited EDGE board member terms. Again, this comes at a cost of approximately $85M in recurring annual tax revenue shortfalls to Memphis/Shelby taxpayers resulting in forgone economic development investments that serve the entire business community and a community in need. 
The plea that comes with leadership advocacy does not exist for Memphis economic growth. Instead, kleptocratic like policy pronouncements heavy on corporate/real estate tax abtements that lack a vision for comprehensive economic development with few short-term winners have been the rule in Memphis. This practice of benefitting only the few ends up costing everyone in the long term. 

Economic growth will only come when the Memphis Corporate Community Leadership makes the plea for comprehensive economic development and local legislators lead the effort while practicing vitally needed oversight. 

Memphis can only reverse current economic trends with increased hands-on, overseen and targeted philanthropic help and advocacy from Memphis Corporate Community Leadership. That is advocacy that includes pleas  for comprehensive balanced economic development that fiscally supports safer/paved streets, a better workforce, public transit, small business and external industry recruitment efforts that serve all. 

joe b. kent
Guest Blogger
Mr. Joe B. Kent has worked throughout the country on workforce and economic development projects and is a reform activist in Memphis. Joe B. has a BBA in Finance, Masters in Instructional Technology and is a certified Global Career Development Facilitator with an emphasis on labor market information.

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