Economic Development is a Team Effort

When I took this job at the Greater Memphis Chamber, I made it the Chamber’s top priority to make Memphis an economic powerhouse. What does that mean?

It means that we have a vision of a city where there is economic prosperity and growth for ALL. We want to see a city where people have opportunities and access to not good, but great jobs.

We want to see a city where children have access to high quality education that prepares them for the future. We want to see a city that has the types of clean streets, safe neighborhoods and amenities that make a city an attractive place to live, work and play.

We have a vision of a city where there is economic prosperity and growth for ALL. We want to see a city where people have opportunities and access to not good, but great jobs. 

 We’ve seen some tremendous momentum underway. New office space and hotels are rising downtown. This week the first new speculative industrial space to be developed in more than a decade was announced. Last week, the Chamber hosted our annual Blue Carpet Tour event and had an unprecedented number of site selectors participate. And they had fantastic things to say about our city. As a matter of fact, lots of people have had good things to say about Memphis lately, including this great piece in Building Design + Construction that suggests Memphis may be the next Austin. You’ve heard our Chairman, Richard Smith, talk about the need to take advantage of this momentum.

The reality is that our city hasn’t grown at the rate it needs to grow in order to generate the kind of revenue we need to fund our schools, improve our infrastructure and to truly take our community to its full potential. We haven’t kept up with many of our peers and our lack of growth makes it difficult to attract new revenue. Because for the first time in many decades, the fact that we are seeing momentum in key areas means that we have an opportunity to right the ship to set our city up for the boom that so many of our peer cities have seen.

The members of the Chairman’s Circle voted last November to make transforming economic development the number one priority for 2018, and “Transforming Memphis into an Economic Development Juggernaut” is one of our Chamber objectives for this year. At the Annual Chairman’s Luncheon, Richard made it clear that we have to bring about real change if we are going to achieve the same level of growth as our peer cities. Richard believes, as do I, that we have to jumpstart our job growth by taking this opportunity to seize the momentum and do what it takes to make Memphis more competitive for jobs and investment. He has boldly challenged all of us – the Chamber, the City, County and EDGE – to do better.  To evolve and grow.

To evolve and grow, we know we have to listen.

For the first time in many decades, the fact that we are seeing momentum in key areas means that we have an opportunity to right the ship to set our city up for the boom that so many of our peer cities have seen.

We have spent a lot of time this summer out in the community listening to our members, to our partners and to our citizens. In addition, we have commissioned several studies and we’ve done a lot of benchmarking against peers.

Some things that are clear based on the research and community outreach work we’ve done over the summer:

1. Our community wants to see a more aggressive approach to economic development.

One of the key things the Boyette Study illuminated was that our city remains extremely competitive for distribution projects. Jobs in this sector are and will always be important to our local economy because one of our city’s competitive advantages is that we are America’s Distribution Center.

However, the research also shone a light on the fact that our city is not as competitive in other sectors including Corporate Headquarters and IT projects - where we see more future growth and higher wages. Today, the tools and processes we use for attraction and retention are not positioning us for success in targeting these high growth, high wage sectors. We want to find a way to change that so that we can bring more high paying, good jobs to Memphis.

To begin to address this, the Chamber has hired one of the country’s top economic development experts – Eric Miller – to lead a completely new economic development strategy that will be more proactive and targeted toward key industries. We will put more resources toward proactive outreach.

In addition, we have hired a new SVP of Public Policy – David McKinney – who will work hand-in-hand with local and state leaders and business leaders to find ways to improve our city’s business environment to make us more attractive for a new generation of businesses to grow and prosper.

Our workforce team, led by Ernest Strickland, Senior Vice President of Workforce Development is leading an effort to revamp how temp agencies use workers and to help more temporary workers find full-time employment by giving them easy access to learning tools and connecting them with more opportunities to transition to full-time work.

2. Growing women and minority-owned businesses is critical to growing our economy and absolutely necessary if we are going to address poverty and inequality in our city.

It is absolutely clear that growing our MWBEs has to be a priority for our city. From the perspective of the Greater Memphis Chamber, this is not up for debate.

We’ve seen some great progress here. Memphis has been named the number one market for growth in both black-owned and women-owned businesses in the past year. That’s a great step! However, when we dig into those numbers, we see that while the volume of MWBEs continues to climb, the revenue numbers for most of these businesses is stagnant. To truly meet our goals of economic prosperity across our city, we have to build these businesses up so that they can have the capacity to take on larger contracts, bigger projects and ultimately create more jobs.


Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration launched The 800 Initiative earlier this year as a forward-facing step for addressing our MWBE capacity issues. The goal of this bold initiative is to grow minority firms' revenue by $50,000,000 in five years.


Chairman's Circle member Turner Construction partnered with local MWBE/LOSB companies Castle Black Construction and Topcat Masonry for 12 months of mentorship and support through the Chamber's Ascend Business Development Program.


Last year, the Chamber launched the Ascend Business Development Program, pairing more than 20 Chairman’s Circle members with MWBE and locally-owned small business (LOSB) leaders for a year-long program dedicated to mentoring and growing these companies. In addition, our Board of Directors made an organizational goal to increase our members’ spending with MWBE and LOSB companies by 300 contracts each.

Earlier this year, a Certification Fair held in conjunction with Mayor Mark Luttrell’s team and Shelby County Government helped certify over 75 MWBE and LOSBs in less than three hours.

3. We need to take bold steps to make our city as attractive as possible for growing, starting, relocating and retaining business.

The foundation of economic prosperity is a good paying, stable job. That’s the first step to moving up the economic ladder, and the tax revenue generated from that good paying job is the funding source and foundation for building great schools, having safe streets and building a community filled with amenities that make the next generation want to stay.

We are currently working to improve in two key areas: making our processes more customer-friendly and making more Sites and Buildings ready and available for investment.

Process Improvement

EDGE has done a great job of creating a transparent process for keeping the community informed about PILOTs. They’ve also done a great job at creating funding tools to help small businesses, particularly those in divested neighborhoods. In an effort to help make Memphis more competitive, EDGE is working diligently to find ways to be more nimble and customer-friendly for companies looking to relocate here.

In addition, the Chamber’s communications team is working on an economic development marketing strategy to more proactively promote our city’s business climate.

Together, we are working as an Economic Development Ecosystem on ways we can make information more easily accessible for companies looking to start, expand or relocate in Memphis.

Sites and Buildings

The Chamber is working with the State to secure certifications for several sites across the city, including the old Firestone property in Smoky City. The goal of this work is to improve the conditions of the sites so that they can be submitted and marketed for more development opportunities.

We are also working with the City of Memphis to identify priority properties for investment so that we can have a more collaborative and coordinated effort on infrastructure improvements.As you can see, there’s a lot of work going on right now to jumpstart growth in our city. Great things happen when we work together.

We have many things to share with you in the coming weeks about our city’s efforts to grow our economy. We hope you will get involved in supporting these efforts and advocating for economic development progress.

Have a great week,

PhilPhil Trenary is the President & CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber, the lead economic development agency for Memphis/Shelby County. The Greater Memphis Chamber is a private, non-profit, membership-driven organization comprised of 2,000 business enterprises, civic organizations, educational institutions and individuals.This post is part of a Chamber series explaining the pieces, players, and processes behind growth in this city. It's an exciting time to be in Memphis - click here to read more and join the conversation.