photograph by Alphaspirit | dreamstime
It’s been said that national politics is like a pendulum swinging regularly from right to left. The same metaphor works also for Chambers of Commerce, where the pendulum regularly swings between consultants calling for greater emphasis on membership and others calling for more involvement in public policy and governmental affairs.
These days, the pendulum at the Greater Memphis Chamber has swung strongly to more involvement in public policies. Responding to business frustration about government leadership, its new Chairman’s Circle, a super group of 100 big donors determined to make progress on some tough issues, has already provided $2.5 million to show how serious they are about shaking things up.
All in all, there is some similarity in the present Chamber assertiveness and the young Turks 35 years ago — including Ron Terry, Pitt Hyde, Fred Smith — who stepped forward to call attention to Memphis’ floundering economy and to set an agenda to change things. These days, a new generation — many children of Memphis business lions — is willing to do the same (although the group needs more diversity), and the good news is that the Greater Memphis Chamber is encouraging them to step up and lead.
Pointing out the importance of picking the right leader for the Chamber, back then, Tiffany Bingham, born into privilege with a deep empathy for the poor, was hired as president from 1979 to 1984. He was a different kind of Chamber executive. He wasn’t prone to cheerleading and wasn’t given to the happy talk that’s prevalent in these jobs and instead stressed the civility and consensus that welcomed everyone into important civic conversations.
Building on the momentum created by Bingham, the Chamber of Commerce brought back David Cooley, who had led the organization in the late 1960s. The priorities given to him by his board: minority business development, expansion of low- and middle-income housing, education and training, and consolidation of government.
His words back then remain relevant: “The greatest barrier to a better Memphis is ignorance. What are some of the problems of urban growth — a deteriorating central city, bad housing for a large percentage of our people, lack of skills training, poor workers mobility, undereducated and underemployed people in large numbers, token acceptance of blacks in decision-making.”
Cooley left in 1995, and the Chamber of Commerce adopted an approach more solicitous of local government, which was by then providing significant funding. The Chamber’s focus shifted from Bingham and Cooley’s hyperlocal concerns to an emphasis on increasing membership and working on an unthreatening public policy issue — regionalism.
The effectiveness of the Chamber and all local economic development efforts were called into question in the first decade of the twenty-first century as the Memphis region lost more than 55,000 jobs. As it takes on its new persona, it faces several challenges, chiefly with the creation of Memphis and Shelby County Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE), which blurs the Chamber’s traditional roles and responsibilities. In addition, the Chamber must exercise influence at a time when top-down solutions are treated with suspicion; when many talented workers feel that economic development plans are rarely about them and more often about blue-collar workers and jobs; and when business involvement in public policy can be as much negative as positive.
Regardless, the Greater Memphis Chamber’s interest in getting more involved in public policies and politics is good news. Memphis needs everyone to get out of the bleachers and into the game if it is to improve its trajectory and that especially goes for the business community. As cities like Nashville have shown, when the business community is willing to get into the trenches (and stay there), it can be a major factor in a city’s progress.
At its annual meeting, the Chamber announced what it calls its “moon missions” — high school graduates ready to work in advanced manufacturing, diesel mechanics, welding or other high-demand trades (called Harvard Tech in what we hope is a short-lived name); pre-K; connecting Mid-South green spaces; adding 1,000 entrepreneurs in 10 years; and developing a long-range growth plan for the region.
Despite the hyperbole about lunar launches, these are important, albeit long-standing, priorities for Memphis, and while they may not take Memphis to the moon, they could position it more strongly after 15 years of sluggish economic results. Even better, success could result in the Chamber providing the kind of engaged, consistent business leadership that can make the same kind of difference seen in other cities.