EPICENTER: No Board Fixes Looking the Other Way
Local & National News | April 01, 2024
No one seems to specifically know about where Epicenter money goes or follow-on private investment. | Written by: Joe B. Kent

Written by: Joe B. Kent

Really, another Industrial Development Board (IDB) in Shelby County? Sponsored by Representative G.A. Hardaway and Senator Raumesh Akbari, HB0351/SB1260 creates yet another IDB for minority and small businesses. Amended in House Commerce committee, the new IDB under HB0351 would be locally funded (TN General Assembly).

There are already 9 IDBs in Shelby County, the Black Business Association, The Greater Memphis Chamber, Mid-South Minority Business Council and the well state funded Epicenter that all are supposed to help small business in Shelby County. Epicenter is supposed to exclusively help small emerging business. Yet as Epicenter refuses to hold public meetings or answer FOIAs, mostly local black Democrat state and local legislators choose to look the other way, not pound the public table, and ask tough questions. And that behavior goes well beyond Hardaway and Akbari.

Epicenter has a 14 member staff whose exclusive mission is to help small emerging business in Shelby County. Again, a 14 member staff ! Yet no one seems to specifically know about where Epicenter money goes or follow-on private investment. Epicenter receives a portion of $117M in statewide funding, over 10 yrs, from Fund Tennessee. And then there was $200M in TNInvestco funding, administered statewide by Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, that was let at the end of the Bredesen Administration (Fund Tennessee) (Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.).

Instead of creating yet another board, in addition to all of the organizations that are supposed to be helping struggling small business in Shelby County, why are state and local leaders looking the other way and not demanding public Epicenter meetings and comprehensive public reporting on where all of this public funding is going and has gone? Really, create another local redundant board, without asking any of the tough questions? No new board is going to fix looking the other way.

REPUBLICANS: Big Nontransparent Spenders

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, Republicans support big nontransparent spending. In some ways, this assessment mirrors Republican Nikki Haley’s Iowa debate remarks, where Haley fingered Republicans for out-of-control Federal spending. In the Iowa debate, Haley said, “You look at the 2024 budget, Republicans asked for $7.4 billion in earmarks, Democrats asked for $2.8 billion.”

An example of big Republican nontransparent spending, in Tennessee, can be found in the $117M Fund Tennessee program. Fund Tennessee is administered by a Governor Haslam authored LaunchTN public-private partnership. Much of the work of LaunchTN publicly supplements wealthy venture capitalists in their high-risk investments in newly established businesses, known as startups. Such a programming model, naturally raises public questions and demands transparency (LaunchTN).

Given the dismal taxpayer results of a like Fund Tennessee $200M program, in TNInvestco, former Tennessee Economic Development (TNECD) Commissioner, Bob Rolfe said, in January 2022, that the Department would 100% not endorse a repeat of TNInvestco (Tennessee Lookout).

At the same time, TNInvestco did at least attempt to publicly measure progress, which supported Rolfe’s critical taxpayer centric evaluation, with transparent quantified annual reports. LaunchTN, which administers the $117M Fund Tennessee program, effectively blows off such reporting, with instead mostly unhelpful and largely unquantifiable colorful PowerPoint type reports. This type of colorful reporting is typical of public-private partnerships {Tennessee Economic and Community Development} (LaunchTN).

In this way, Fund Tennessee programming cannot be evaluated for taxpayer benefit, as LaunchTN and their local affiliates engage in the questionable public act of supplementing the risky investments of wealthy venture capitalists. There must be a better way!

Representing the public on the LaunchTN Board are Republicans Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner Stuart McWhorter, Representative Patsy Hazelwood, and Senator Bo Watson. To evaluate program effectiveness, LaunchTN administered Fund Tennessee programming needs transparent, quantifiable annual reporting, like TNInvestco.

Such reporting would include by company: LaunchTN regional partner, company/startup name, company location, state investment, federal investment, follow on private investment, created jobs, retained jobs, state and private exit proceeds. Additionally, LaunchTN and their regional affiliate such as Epicenter meetings should be public, with board minutes published, as well as monthly and annual audited financials, while all affiliated entities are required to service public information requests.

Given the challenges of local small business in Shelby County, all the public funding and connected organizations, why are not local elected leadership publicly demanding this information? Because they are looking the other way. There is no programming model or new board that is going to fill the deficit gap of looking the other way. It just won’t.

Can LaunchTN administered Fund Tennessee work? Publicly supplementing the risky investments of wealthy venture capitalists is far from ideal public programming. At the same time, such programming stands a better chance of success when supported with public transparency. Epicenter, Fund Tennesee and TnInvestco all demand transparency to serve the public good.

Really, another redundant board and locally funded staffing, while looking the other way? That can’t help.

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