Behind the Headlines – January 25, 2019

Behind the Headlines – January 25, 2019


– (female narrator)
Production funding for Behind The Headlines
is made possible in part by: the WKNO Production Fund, the WKNO Endowment Fund, and by viewers like
you, thank you. – Memphis Chamber
president Beverly Robertson on economic development, equity, and more, tonight on Behind The Headlines. [dramatic orchestral music] I’m Eric Barnes, president and executive
editor of the Daily Memphian. Thanks for joining us. I am joined tonight
by Beverly Robertson, president and CEO of the
Greater Memphis Chamber. Thanks for being here again. – Glad to be here. – Along with Bill Dries, reporter with
The Daily Memphian. You were here before. We were talking
actually two times in your role as running the
National Civil Rights Museum. But you’re here now as
president CEO of the chamber, a job you took some,
what a month or two ago. – Couple months ago, mm hmm. – Talk about, we’ll talk about
all kinds of things. Economic development,
equity as I talked about, all kinds of initiatives
of the chamber. But right now, with
you taking this role, and taking the role in a
difficult time for the chamber. Phil Trenary’s killing was difficult for anyone who was at all involved
with the chamber. Your priorities as you
come into this role. – Well as I see it, there are three major
priorities of the chamber. One is economic development. Bringing more jobs,
new companies, and even promoting the expansion of existing
businesses in Memphis. The second one is
workforce development. One of the reasons that
I think many companies struggle in Memphis is
because they can’t find a trained and skilled workforce. So that is a priority. And third is public policy. Making sure we advocate
for those policies that support a strong
business operating environment in Memphis, Tennessee. So those are three
primary priorities. And under economic development is also the growth
and development of locally owned small business and minority businesses as well. – And we’ll take each of those as we go through
the conversation. But one thing with
economic development over the last, you know, six months, a year, the chamber’s been in the news in part because Richard Smith, who’s the president
of the board, what one thinks of as
the chairman of the board of the chamber, very publicly called for a
redefinition of the roles and responsibilities of the
city of Memphis government, the Chamber of Commerce, and EDGE, the Economic Development
Growth Engine, which handles
incentives and so-on. The mayor came forward recently with some idea about
how that would work. Where does that stand? Where did the
conversation between EDGE, the city, and the
chamber stand right now? – I think that agreement
and collaboration is about to be
consummated officially. And while there’s still
a few little details that have to be worked out and signatures to be secured, we are clear about the
role of the chamber, the role of EDGE, the role of the Downtown
Memphis Commission, the city of Memphis
in this equation. So those roles have been
delineated and clearly defined. And I think the collaboration is gonna work
beautifully for Memphis because we’ll all
be working together. We won’t be siloed. There won’t be any
level of contentiousness because there’ll be
a cooperative spirit and we’ll be
unified in our quest to drive new businesses, higher paying jobs into
the Memphis marketplace. – One of the things that, and I should say
Richard Smith’s also a executive at FedEx. He called for, you know, the chamber should
be selling the city. And EDGE wasn’t
doing enough selling, that EDGE is sort of
the administrator of… And again, I’m paraphrasing, which I should be
careful about that. That EDGE administers
and assesses and doles out
incentives or doesn’t. And you’re right to bring in
Downtown Memphis Commission ’cause they do a lot as well. Is that the role that
the chamber’s gonna take? Will the chamber become the
salesperson for the city for businesses recruited in, and businesses looking, maybe
even considering leaving, and trying to keep ’em in? – The chamber will
be the primary engine to really drive and garner
the interest of site planners in Memphis as a marketplace. EDGE will be the
closer of the deal. Because they are the ones
who offer the incentives and specify exactly what
those companies will get and receive over a
specific period of time. So those are the two
specific major roles that will be played
by both the chamber and by EDGE as well. And I think it
makes a lot of sense and where the EDGE needs
the chamber’s expertise. Because we have a new gentleman that heads up
economic development, who has 20 years of experience
in other marketplaces, and some innovative ideas
about how you really attract. He is well-known by
people in this space because he’s been in
this space for a while. Highly regarded and
highly respected. So I believe that that is
gonna work beautifully for us. To the extent that EDGE needs
our support and assistance on the other side of the street, we’ll be there for that as well. – And that’s Eric Miller, is that correct?
– Eric Miller. – He was on the show
with some other folks from your office in the fall. But let me get Bill
Dries involved. – So Beverly how do you deal with this kind of identification with
the process in the past of having to jump through hoops and at the same time
get the assurances that are needed to say, okay, you’re getting incentives, you’re gonna pay a
certain amount of money and you’re gonna create
a certain amount of jobs. How do you balance those two? Because the site consultants
can be pretty decisive on this. If they see too many hoops, they might not even
engage in the process. – Well I think one of
the things we’ll be doing is looking at the processes, and working to
streamline what we do. Even in terms of when we do visits, and when we
bring them into Memphis. There is a way to
streamline that approach as they get to view
the marketplace. And then as we work
on closing the deal in terms of
providing incentives. I think that has to be
as seamless as possible with not too many obstacles
and complications because it’s a competitive
marketplace out here. And we got a lot of
competition just to ourself. And so we’ve got to
be attractive to them. And we gotta make the deal
that we structure attractive without hurting the
marketplace and our ability, you know, 10 years
down the road. – Do the companies
looking at Memphis, or a company here
looking to expand, have they always known
about the markers in terms of pay per hour, in terms of jobs created, in terms of that? Is that already front-loaded
into the process or has that been a
surprise for them? – I think many of the companies
have some sense or idea of that on the front end. And they come to the
table kinda knowing what to expect from
the marketplace because a lot of
conversations have gone on before they get to the point, they get to the table. So there’s a lot of
talk back and forth between the markets
and those companies that are coming into the market. So yes, on the front end. – And now, you know, the chamber has again, members
everywhere from FedEx, to The Daily
Memphian is a member, to somebody who might be
a one or two-person shop. You’ll hear more, when
we talk about incentives, and we talk about
big tax incentives either for retention or
for a company moving here, you’ll hear the
person who’s you know, got the small business, probably a chamber member,
maybe a chamber member say, well what about me? Where’s my incentive? I’ve been here for
x number of years creating a job, or two, or three, or five, or 10. I should get something
and it’s not fair that this company
comes in and gets favorable treatment
that I don’t get. How do you balance that? – Well, one of the
things we’re doing is providing a digital
platform that has all of the information on
minority and small businesses in that database. So that company
has an opportunity to take a look at
those businesses. Instead of saying, well we can’t really identify
any businesses in this space, they will be delineated based on the categories that they’re in. This is the first time we’ve
tried this digital platform. To provide that as a resource, so there’s no question
that there are businesses that are in a diverse range
of spaces in this marketplace, that have the skills
and abilities, and the experience to
be able to work with these entities that are
coming into the city. So we’re gonna see
how that works. – And you mentioned minority
and women-owned businesses. That’s a requirement or… And I’ll actually probably
let you define it. But it’s always a subject
of a lot of consternation when businesses
are recruited in. It’s often a subject I
should say of consternation. You might have politicians
or advocates saying, look, these businesses come
in and they don’t give. They build a big facility, a big warehouse, a big whatever. They don’t give
enough of that work to local women-owned businesses, or minority owned businesses. Then you get the site selectors, and all this competition
you’re talking about, people saying, look other markets don’t
have those requirements. So if we have
those requirements, we’re gonna lose
that business to Desoto County, to Louisville, to Nashville, to whatever. What is your take
on balancing that in terms of business recruitment and the desire to have small women and minority-owned
businesses and so-on involved? And the fact that might
run some businesses off? – Yeah, when I spoke
to Eric about that, I asked him about best
practices in other cities. And what he said to me is that in other cities, they
don’t require it. But they provide resources
to those businesses that come and recommend that those
businesses do business. And I think part of it is we don’t want to do anything that’s gonna be a stumbling
block to attracting business. But at the same time, we we want there to be balance on the other side of the street. So I think maybe there ought
to be some accountability and some followup with
those organizations to see if they are doing what they
say they’re going to do on the back side of the street. – And is that a role for
EDGE as the administrator or DMC, Downtown
Memphis Commission? – Yes, I would say EDGE, yeah. – Yeah okay, Bill. – Is that one of the details
still to be worked out or have you already
got that worked out in the relationship among, in the economic development
plan going forward? – You know what, we haven’t talked
about that in detail. We’re all very aware of that. And I think that’s something
that will be on the table. We will have probably
our first meeting of this sort of joint
venture in February. So we’ve got several things
that we want to talk about and really work out
the specifics of. So stay tuned because
that will be to come. – So how unique is the nature of
our economic boom that we’re seeing right now with all of its questions
and discussion about including everybody
who’s here in that? Are we different from other
cities in that regard? Or are all cities having these
discussions do you think? – I think a lot of urban markets are having these kinds
of discussions about the whole notion of inclusion, and involvement of everybody. And when you look at
the chamber website, one of the values of
the chamber is equality and opportunity for all. And we’ve gotta make that live through the work that
we do at the chamber. And one of the ways
that we make that live is we help provide
the workforce, or we convene all of the
folks in the workforce spaces to ensure that people
are trained and ready to assume the jobs that exist, or the jobs that
will be coming in. And the way we do that, and we’re thinking this year about hosting a workforce summit so that we deal
with all the players that are aligned
in various spaces. So if you are in the trades, or if you are, you know, have an auto mechanic program, or if you’re in
Southwest Tennessee, or if you’re at Tennessee Tech, what we are now is
we’re very siloed. And so everybody does the
work in their own areas. But what if we came together, the city school system, and began to talk about
vocational training. Because young people
get disengaged when they’re in middle school, if they’re not on
a college track. They end up graduating. They may be on the street
or working at McDonald’s. But if they had some technical
training and some skills, an internship program that
led to employment and a job, then they would certainly
not be out on the streets, or getting into the kind
of trouble we’ve seen, which has facilitated the
growth in the crime rate. So there are several pockets
that we’ll be working in and working with organizations
that are in those areas to bring all of them together, including ex-convicts, there are programs that
are targeted to those. There are programs
that will be focused on those folks who’ve
been on the street, out of work for a long time. That means they gotta
have some remedial skills, and some soft skill training. But bringing all these
elements together and creating a base of
folks that can be employed means that there would be
more opportunity, number one. Number two, we could
reduce the crime rate. Number three, we could impact
poverty, reduce poverty. So I think that’s a really
important thing for us to do. And that is a part of
economic development as well in the Memphis marketplace. – We are about eight
years away from when Electrolux and
several really big economic development
projects landed here. Blues City Brewing
was also part of this. And after they got here, the folks running
those plants said, you know what, we’ve got a real
workforce problem here and we’ve gotta do
something about it. Now, what do you
think the state is, at this moment, eight years, nine years down the road, from kinda that crisis that we had to respond
to immediately? – I understand and
have actually had some very early on conversations
with Governor Bill Lee. This is a priority, a major priority of
this administration to really focus on
developing stronger skillsets across the technical, across the construction trades. And as I talked to him
briefly about that, he indicated that that is
something as a business man that he knows there’s
a great need for. Whether it’s HVAC professionals, or those folks who
are pipefitter, or those folks who
work on boilers. All of the trades, electricians. Those trades, there is
not enough talent now to be able to perpetuate
those trades long term. So that’s gonna be a major
focus of our incoming governor, or our governor now that
has been inaugurated. And we certainly want to
be one of the first groups at the table to talk to him about investing in
Memphis, Tennessee and making sure that Moore Tech
has an opportunity to grow, Southwest Tennessee has
an opportunity to grow, and all of us are
working synergistically. We’re not working in
competition, but synergistically to be able to scale
the number of people that can go through
those programs and ultimately obtain jobs. And so much of the discussion
during the governor’s race, particularly during
the Republican Primary, among those contenders,
centered on that. And Randy Boyd said, one of the contenders in
the primary who didn’t win, said at one point that
for-profit schools do a much better job
of advertising here, and making people
aware of their programs than Southwest Tennessee
Community College. Are there efforts
to change that, or at least get them
on an equal footing? – Well you know, I can’t really speak
for the president. But I certainly
think she would love to be able to do that. But the answer is resources, financial resources. You know, higher education
is extremely expensive, and becoming even more
expensive every day. So I’m sure that if there
were some kind of subsidy to insure that
they could do that, to market and promote
the things that they do, they would be able to attract
more people to the program. Thus, it would help them to be
able to service more students because they can
expand their programs to be able to address the
needs of the marketplace. – 10 minutes left or so. You talked about priorities
at the beginning, public policy, and you mentioned Bill
Lee, the new governor. The Legislature is
going into session. I can’t remember, it’s something almost
a quarter to a third of the members of the
full Legislature are new. There’s always, in many corners of
Memphis a concern, business community,
political community, that the state is not only not
giving attention to Memphis, but that it’s sometimes
hostile to Memphis. So far, your interactions
with governor Lee have been… What is your sense of that, the degree to which Memphis
will be not a stepchild, but a priority? – I believe Governor Lee
is from West Tennessee and started a business
in West Tennessee. So he’s indicated that
he’s very interested in what happens in Memphis, and is going to be supportive
of many of the things that are important
to this marketplace. So I at least feel that
there is an opportunity. And I’m not saying that
Governor Haslam wasn’t. Because I will tell you that when Governor Haslam
was in office, you know, he was very supportive
of many of the things that we were doing
here in West Tennessee. But I suspect that, you know, as a person who
is from this area, or very close to the
Memphis marketplace, he’ll be very sensitive
to the request that we make at the state level. Plus, we’ve had some
conversations with Glen Casada, who’s the Speaker of the House, and talked to him a little
bit about the agenda for Memphis in economic
development agenda, the workforce agenda
here in Memphis. And he was very positively
predisposed to that. So I think the onus
is somewhat on us to continue to build and
nurture those relationships and communicate very
loudly and clearly what the needs are of
the business community and the marketplace in general so that we can get
the kind of resources that we need to have. And by the way, we will have people in
Nashville, boots on the ground, sort of looking at
monitoring the legislation so that when legislation
hits the floor, we will know if we need to
be in a position of advocacy, or in a position that
would oppose something that we don’t think
would be synergistic or positive for Memphis. – Two things. One that inevitably I think
still brings up the question of the statues, and the
concerns some people had that there would be
retribution at the legislature. There was some stuff that
happened last year in the session that was, you know, I think a couple
hundred thousand dollars was put in and then pulled to support the bicentennial. Anything at this point, have you heard from
Speaker Casada or on down about retribution over statues, or anything else
Memphis has done that maybe a more
conservative legislature doesn’t agree with? – I have heard that. I serve on the Tennessee
Historical Commission. – Oh you do, I forgot, yes. – I do and I was the primary architect of the waiver which allowed cities
to say, you know, we don’t want to have
these statues here, and allowed them to
petition for a process that you know, if they refused it, they could go
through that process. I think that there has been some
retribution at the state level directed toward Memphis because I think it was a very smart
way that this whole piece, this removal was maneuvered. And kudos to us because
that is certainly not anything they expected
from Memphis, Tennessee. But I think what they miss when they think about the whole
statue controversy is that that is a public space, or was a public space, owned by the city government. And the reality for me is, it would be better
served to be in a place where you could shape
the context around it. That same discussion is going
on in Nashville right now about some of their statues, and where the
placement of it is. They want to place
them in a museum where they can put
the context around it, people can really understand it. A statue sittin’ in a
park has no context. All you see is a statue. So I think people need to
understand the history behind it, not just view a statue,
a historic statue. – Five minutes left. Another policy issue that I assume will come
up at the state, if it hasn’t already, is the Memphis Megasite, out some, what, 40
miles from Memphis. It’s been under
construction, give or take, for many, many years. It is not shovel ready. There was a lot
of talk last year, or in the last year or two, a big factory, huge
employer was gonna come in. They went to a different
state in part because a whole lot of work
still had to be done on that Megasite before
it could be populated. Other people say
it’s a boondoggle. The state has put in tens
of millions of dollars and you know, they just need to
cut their losses. Is the Memphis
Chamber gonna push for more investment
in the Megasite? And what’s the perception been? – You know what, I think
there are mixed reviews on the Megasite. And I think that’s an issue that is gonna be on the
table for discussion. I was in a meeting
the other day and when you talk to one
chamber member they’re like, well you know, a
lot’s been invested, and we still can’t get
that site together. You know, maybe we should
cut our losses and move on. But I don’t think any final
decision has been made around the Megasite. So I think that will
be on the agenda. And there will be some
decision about that probably in the future. But nothing has
changed at this point. – Okay, Bill. – The chamber has had a
political action committee. This is a city election year. Will the chamber be
involved through it’s PAC? – Well you know, one of the board
members asked a question about the PAC recently. I don’t know the
history of the PAC, but I will learn
it pretty quickly because this is
an election year. And what I would say is, the PAC has been involved in
making some political decisions about who they would support. And I’m not sure where
they are this year. But I hope over the next
few weeks, and quickly, we will find out exactly
in what direction that PAC will be headed. – And there has been some
discussion with Epicenter about the city possibly investing
some pension funds in some of the
programs that it has. Does the chamber have
a position on that? – Look, we would
certainly welcome it. We birthed the Epicenter. They’ve done some
really incredible work. They’ve created
several entrepreneurs over the course of time
that they have existed. I think it’s a
wonderful opportunity because I realize that
small business is the engine that drives the national
and global economies. And the more we can create
those kinds of businesses through the Epicenter, and Start Co. and all those
others affiliated with it, the better off our
marketplace is gonna be because those businesses hire
people in the marketplace that need those opportunities. So I definitely would say, if the city is
willing to invest, I would welcome the investment. And I’m sure Leslie would too. – Are these risky investments
though for a pension fund? – It needs to be a
calculated risk now because I’m sure the city
doesn’t want to lose its money. And we wouldn’t want to
see them do that, you know. So I think we gotta be
judicious about decisions around using pensions
funds, period. – Just with a
couple minutes left, and you mentioned Leslie,
Leslie Lynn Smith, who’s the head of Epicenter, been on the show at
least once or twice. You are the first
African-American president and CEO of the chamber,
is that correct? – And female. – And first female. Is that still significant? You know, there’s some
point of view that in 2019, we’re past much of this. Another point of view, you see conversations
that we’re not. So the significance to you. – I think it’s
incredibly significant. And it’s incredibly
significant because what it does is it says that women and people of color now believe that they
have an opportunity to assume non-traditional
positions, positions that have traditionally been
held by others. And that there is some
measure of confidence that they can be
successful in doing so. So I imagine that my
presence on the Chamber will give lots of young people, whether they are
people of color, or women in general, the confidence and
the pride that says they can accomplish things
that they never dreamed of. That’s how I feel
about the position. – You came in, again, we mentioned at the
top of the show, after Phil’s tragic death. You know, kind of terrible
situation for the chamber, obviously for his
family and friends. Are you gonna be at the
Chamber for the long term? I mean, ’cause again it was
not a planned transition to say the least. I want to be
delicate about that, but what is your future
with the Chamber? – Well we’ll see based
on the successes. I’m an outcome-driven person. And I have lots of plans, and lots of creative things
in store for the Chamber. So we’ll see what the board
believes and what they think, and whether or not they believe that what we can
accomplish this year is worthy of continuing, my continued relationship
with the Chamber. – All right, well thank
you for being here, and thank you Bill, and thank you all
for joining us. Join us again next week. [dramatic orchestral music] [acoustic guitar chords]

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