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VOL. 125 | NO. 90 | Monday, May 10, 2010

Memphis in May

Where it’s been and how it's doing

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

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In 1977, Lyman Aldrich had job creation in mind when he invited Japanese businessmen to serve on the board of Memphis in May.

Two years later, Sharp Electronics, a Japanese manufacturer, announced its intention to build its first U.S. plant in Memphis.


“My thinking all along was if I could make Memphis in May an economic development engine, that would be the only way I’d want to do it,” said Aldrich, founder and chairman emeritus of the annual event series.

In the years since Aldrich stepped down from the MIM board, he has begun to wonder if the popular civic events associated with the celebration, like the Beale Street Music Festival and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, have eclipsed international trade missions for good.

“The thought was if we can make friends of the country we are honoring, business to business, city to city, then maybe we can say, ‘If you’re going to invest in the United States, why don’t you invest in Memphis?’” he said.

Aldrich served MIM for two three-year terms and then came back onboard in 2000 for another three years.

Outside in

MIM organizers say the economic impact, while shifting from global to regional and national, is more viable than ever.

Many Memphians might struggle to locate the nation of Tunisia on a map, even as Memphis welcomes high-level government officials from the North African country as Memphis in May’s 2010 honoree.

“The thought was if we can make friends of the country we are honoring, business to business, city to city, then maybe we can say, ‘If you’re going to invest in the United States, why don’t you invest in Memphis?’”

– Lyman Aldrich
Founder, Memphis in May

“We look at countries from a geographical, continental region so that were not focused on any specific area,” said Jim Holt, president and CEO of MIM. “This year we’re in Africa, last year we were in South America with Chile.

“The year prior to that we were in Asia with Turkey. The year prior to that we were in Europe with Spain. We spin the globe, so to speak. Then we have a pretty detailed process for looking at four or five attributes for the countries.”

Back in the day, countries were chosen with dollar signs in mind.

“I came up with Japan the first year because it was like China today,” said Aldrich. “They had such a balance-of-trade problem with the United States. I knew they were going to have to invest a lot of money here.”

Aldrich was elected to be president of MIM for the 1977 festival when it was still a project of the Chamber of Commerce. Festivals did not take place in 1975 or 1976 because of financial hardships, and in 1978, Aldrich decided to separate from the chamber altogether.

“I liked the name (of the festival) and I liked the month,” said Aldrich. “I thought if we can work around the international (component) to create some economic activity from around the world for investing in Memphis and create some events locally, then we could create jobs for hotels, motels, and bars and so forth, and if we were really lucky, we could get businesses from a foreign country to come here and create jobs.”

Aldrich contacted the head of Datsun forklift, the only Japanese company with a facility in Memphis, and invited him to serve on the board of directors.

Officials at Datsun later invited the Japanese ambassador to the United States, who attended the festival for three days, unwittingly starting a tradition of bringing foreign dignitaries to Memphis.

This year Minister Mohamed Nouri Jouini of Tunisia’s ministry of development and international cooperation will be one of three cabinet-level dignitaries to attend MIM activities.

In 1979, Aldrich got a call to attend a public announcement by Lamar Alexander the following day.

“Lamar was there to announce the first manufacturing facility in the United States for Sharp Electronics here in Memphis,” said Aldrich. “They started out with about 3,000 employees. Lamar said, ‘We want to thank Memphis in May and the role that it played in honoring the culture of Japan’ and he asked me to stand up. Then I knew that the concept might have wheels.”

Canada and Germany were selected as the second and third honorees, respectively, because of their status as the No. 1 and 2 trading partners with the U.S.

Aldrich and about 20 businesspeople from Memphis spent two weeks knocking on doors in various German cities promoting Memphis as fertile ground for investments.

Face time

It is difficult to prove that direct links exists between honored nations and any international capital investments that may follow, but Aldrich said MIM might be missing the forest for the barbecue.

“What should have been done and was not followed up on and is still not, is that (MIM) is such a door opener to (nations’) business communities, because we’re working with the ambassadors and we’re traveling,” said Aldrich. “It’s so easy to take interested businesspeople on trade missions to those countries. They can set up business meetings with all of the businesses interested in coming to our aerotropolis. That’s how you get investments.”

Holt said the economic impact of the festival is seen largely in the tourist industry.

MIM Takes Long Colorful Road to Now

The month of activities known as Memphis in May originally opened in the mid-1970s with a business conference promoting the honored country.
It drew a bigger crowd than the barbecue contest, which, starting in 1978, was held on a parking lot north of The Orpheum.
Australian tourism officials came to the conference in 1985.
Those at the Memphis gathering listened to radio ads featuring a then unknown Australian pitchman named Paul Hogan.
Hogan was tentatively slated to attend the conference but missed it when something else came up down under. The next year the movie Hogan had been working on, “Crocodile Dundee,” debuted in America.
The business conference was global before the term was over-used. Memphis in May still has business conferences with business leaders and diplomats from the honored countries.
A delegation from Morocco to the 1999 festival included a group of dancers.
One of the dancers left the group’s hotel Downtown and tried to seek asylum in the U.S. The woman turned up at Germantown’s municipal center after she was reported missing. After talking privately with the head of the Moroccan delegation, she changed her mind and returned to Morocco.
Street preachers have been a regular part of the festival over the years. The festival in the mid-1990s ordered Kenneth D. Lansing out of the area on Riverside Drive where tickets were being sold.
Lansing filed suit in federal district court.
The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2000 that MIM could ban the preachers. The preachers turned up anyway and were for the most part ignored.
Sunset Symphony crowds became a problem briefly in the 1980s. Crowds would begin camping out atop the Mississippi River bluff starting the week before the concert. It led the city to enforce the rule that city parks closed at midnight.
Mid-South Concerts founder and promoter Bob Kelley took charge of the music festival in 1990.
MIM and Kelley parted ways in 1997 over the take from the box office.
Kelley had organized a rival music festival with a better lineup that was to debut at the fairgrounds the weekend before Memphis in May’s music lineup. Kelley took his own life in 1998 before the dueling music festivals could become a reality.
– Bill Dries

“We serve really as a facilitator,” said Holt. “We open the door, but we’re a civic festival so we’re a great entree to another country and we work closely with economic interests of the other country, but we’re not per se an economic development organization. We aren’t set up to do that.”

Holt pointed out that many American cities were setting up civic celebrations in 1976 because of the country’s bicentennial. The international component of MIM helped it stand out from the rest and draw regional and national visitors.

John Oros, executive vice president of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the Beale Street Music Festival and the Barbecue Cooking Contest rival business and church conventions that take place in Memphis.

“You get three to four days of hotels being sold out Downtown, then rooms out east and by the airport start selling out, so our hotel community does very well during both events,” said Oros.

And Holt’s numbers are less anecdotal than Aldrich’s.

About 70 percent of visitors at the 2009 Beale Street Music Festival were from outside of Memphis and provided $23 million in direct business revenue, another $23.2 million in indirect sales, all of which supported 577 jobs earning more than $14 million.

“Since the Church of God in Christ moved out of town, I really think it’s the biggest boom in terms of total revenue spikes for hotels here in the city,” said Holt.

He expects between 100,000 to 120,000 visitors for this year’s music festival. Past years have gone as high as 150,000. The overall economic impact of the 2009 Barbecue Cooking Contest was $21.8 million.

Oros said out of town visitors may stay as long as four days for the music festival and as long as six days for the barbecue contest, spending between $100 and $200 per person each day.

Since those visitors are largely regional, many will return to Memphis throughout the year.

Of course, the revenue depends largely on the weather, since 75 percent to 80 percent of MIM’s revenue comes from outdoor events. The organization’s annual budget is $6.5 million, give or take $500,000 because of rain.

“Sometimes I feel like a farmer,” Holt said.

About $1.3 million is raised each year from corporate donors, notably FedEx, International Paper, AutoZone and First Tennessee. But Aldrich said he isn’t aware of any trade mission being organized since MIM honored Egypt in 1981.

However, MIM's international focus remains central to its mission.

“That’s one of the elements that sets us apart, so I really see enthusiasm for that growing as opposed to diminishing,” Holt said.

The honoree for 2011, a European country, will be announced in August, and MIM is close to a decision on the honoree for 2012.

Aldrich, a real estate developer and adviser living in Collierville, is still a supporter of MIM. But while Memphis tries to attract new industry, he wonders if a worthy opportunity is sitting right under the city’s nose.

“My main motive was to create jobs and that gets lost in history,” Aldrich said.

PROPERTY SALES 97 418 8,253
MORTGAGES 112 508 9,293
BUILDING PERMITS 194 1,059 18,126
BANKRUPTCIES 46 208 5,367