VOL. 125 | NO. 19 | Friday, January 29, 2010
By Andy Meek
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. answers questions posed by Hickory Hill residents during a town hall meeting at the Hickory Hill Community Center on Tuesday. Photo: Lance Murphey
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. is quickly evolving into a virtual one-man chamber of commerce.
In between putting out political brushfires, mapping out an ambitious city agenda and holding town halls with voters, the mayor also has spent much of his first three months glad-handing national businesses and political leaders.
For him, the office is as much about the traditional aspects of governing a municipality as it is about personally recruiting new business investment and paying calls on the city’s existing businesses. And he does not view the task as stopping at the Memphis city limits.
Wharton returned a little more than a week ago from New York City, for example, where he accompanied a delegation from the Greater Memphis Chamber and met with Daisuke Koshima, the chairman and CEO of Sharp Electronics Corp. Sharp has a manufacturing facility in Memphis, and Wharton helped encourage the company to keep Memphis on its radar.
While in New York, Wharton also spent time with officials from the Japan External Trade Organization, or JETRO, a government-backed group that promotes Japanese exports and fosters ties with trading partners. Wharton also met with billionaire entertainment mogul Robert Sillerman, who said he remains committed to a dramatic transformation of Graceland and the surrounding commercial area on Elvis Presley Boulevard.
Residents and leaders of the business community and government attended a recent meeting that saw Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. take questions from citizens. Photo: Lance Murphey
Also about a week ago, Wharton was in Washington for the 78th winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. During a brief introduction to first lady Michelle Obama, Wharton invited her to attend the grand opening this summer of the new Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center.
Le Bonheur has launched a “Red Rover, Red Rover, Send the First Lady Right Over!” campaign to get Michelle Obama to be the keynote speaker for the June 15 grand opening.
“If I spot a trip where I can get a Memphis message across, I’m going to be there,” Wharton said. “It’s funny. The world is much smaller than we think it is. And for far too long, the Memphis name, the Memphis brand, has not cropped up in national and international circles with the prominence of cities against which we are competing for business and industry and talent.”
Whether he realizes it or not, the city’s still relatively new mayor adheres to the old adage among bankers that “you can’t fax a handshake.” And Wharton wants to be in the room to personally take those and other messages to national leaders.
During the same trip in which he met the first lady, Wharton personally laid out for Assistant U.S. Attorney General Tom Perez the city’s case against Wells Fargo, the national lender Memphis and Shelby County are suing over dubious loan practices. Perez heads the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has been spreading the positive news of the city to national and local leaders alike, including meetings in New York, Washington and at home. Photo: Lance Murphey
Wharton will be back in Washington next month to speak on a panel at a conference sponsored by Governing Magazine.
A few days after his October swearing in, Wharton was in Washington for a meeting with David Agnew, deputy director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. Agnew is a point man of sorts between the White House and governments angling for opportunities to acquire and deploy money from the stimulus program.
Wharton also met Chicago businesswoman Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama. And he was back in Washington at the end of the year for a holiday reception at the White House.
Also in December, Wharton was among three other big-city mayors who participated in a 45-minute conference call discussion with Vice President Joe Biden on stimulus spending.
Wharton aide Bobby White said Biden stayed on the call the whole time and that the discussion was productive.
“Let’s just face it. In international business affairs, protocol means a lot,” Wharton said. “You can have the best chamber, but still you have to have the top-level political commitment. They don’t want to see it in the form of, ‘Our mayor wanted to be here, but he couldn’t. Here’s a little note he sent.’
“It’s so competitive out there, and they want people who can speak with finality. If you look at how at the state level, Economic Development Commissioner Matt Kisber travels extensively, but Gov. Phil Bredesen either opens the door or closes the door. With all the power Matt has, and he does an excellent job, when it comes to the big ones, you’re going to find a Bredesen fingerprint on there somewhere.”
Roses for all
Wharton has been just as focused on the business community here. When health care services company McKesson Corp. recently signaled that it may move some of its local operations out of the city, Wharton paid its local executives a visit.
The mayor made a personal pitch to Memphis City Council members in November encouraging them to approve a change to the policies of the city-county Industrial Development Board that would smooth the way for McKesson to expand in Memphis.
And Wharton was among those involved in encouraging Smith & Nephew’s expansion of its orthopedic division’s global headquarters based in Memphis.
“Mayor Wharton is an extraordinary leader and an engaging personality,” said Arnold Perl, secretary and counsel of the Greater Memphis Chamber. “He is somebody that within government has the ability to create consensus, and out in the field with the business community he is widely admired and respected.”
About Memphis’ existing businesses, Wharton has a metaphor to describe his approach. The relationship between government and the business community before was like a marriage that had gone stale.
“I can speak firsthand about this. I’m coming up on my 40th (wedding) anniversary,” Wharton said. “I don’t take roses home as often as I did. But you’ve got to take something home. Don’t take anything for granted. With our existing employers, it’s like a marriage that’s gotten some age to it. ‘Oh, we’ve got them here, they aren’t going anywhere.’
“But there’s people bringing them roses, perfume and sweet music every day. I want to start taking them roses, perfume and sweet music. Whether it’s to Southeast Shelby County or Southeast Asia, we’re going to be there.”