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VOL. 119 | NO. 158 | Thursday, September 1, 2005

Research Group Tackles Range of Projects

Real estate, IT studies among new initiatives for BBER

By Andy Meek

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LENDING EXPERTISE: BBER senior research associate Dr. Jeffrey Wallace and other staff members continually work to complete economic analysis projects for a variety of local groups. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

When Memphis officials forecast the tax revenue they'll likely take in during an upcoming budget year, public attention quickly turns to the numbers.

Meanwhile, the research operation at the University of Memphis that helps compile those statistics continues working behind the scenes, helping city officials make economic predictions as well as consulting with their counterparts in Shelby County government on a variety of issues.

And that's how it's been for more than four decades. Without much fanfare, the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the U of M has been carrying out economic and labor market research for government agencies, businesses and citizens throughout Tennessee.

Impact studies. Recent projects include an impact study on Memphis International Airport. Current studies include an economic analysis of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art's local impact, as well as a study that weighs the possibilities for the U of M as it considers shifting the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law to Downtown. The BBER also is working with Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp. to examine the local impact of its facilities.

"We really do a little bit of everything," said Dr. John Gnuschke, director of the research group. "We're one of the largest sponsored research organizations both at the university and at business colleges in the entire country.

"And gosh, I don't know what that means to anybody, except that it means we've been very successful at getting grants over decades and that our work has helped decision-makers all over the state. And to that extent, our work has benefited both the state and local economies."

"We really do a little bit of everything. We're one of the largest sponsored research organizations both at the university and at business colleges in the entire country."
- John Gnuschke
director, U of M Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research

Information center. An example of the BBER's work in action is the bureau's new Applied Information Technology Center, a consulting arm that has been set up to work with state agencies and Shelby County to address the rising costs of IT services.

For now, it's the main topic of discussion between the research group and county officials, said James Huntzicker, Shelby County director of administration and finance.

"Whereas they provide some revenue projections on the city side, we use the bureau for specific projects like this, and they're excellent," Huntzicker said. "We're currently dealing with them on some IT studies, some efficiency issues dealing with our IT shop and tech standards. And they're outstanding - everything they have done for us has been top-notch."

On the city side, the story is the same. Memphis City Council member Carol Chumney said she has interacted with some of the group's professors as a student at U of M, where she earned a degree in economics, and also as a former state legislator. Her verdict?

"They're very, very good and do great work," she said.

Charles Williamson, director of finance for the city of Memphis, added: "I can tell you that we have an excellent working relationship with the Sparks Bureau, and they provide excellent information to the city."

Learned staff. That top-notch analysis is to be expected, since the research group's staff is made up of six Ph.D.s, five professionals with master's degrees and an additional 25 staffers - not to mention student workers. Gnuschke has run the bureau since 1985, the year it merged with the school's Center for Manpower Studies. Before that, Gnuschke had run the CMS since 1976.

The research group was named after late businessman and philanthropist Willard Sparks in 2003.

The BBER's publications include its Web site, www.people.memphis.edu/~bberlib/, and "Business Perspectives," a quarterly magazine that highlights specific topics and includes expert opinions. The bureau also turns out "The Memphis Economy," a monthly newsletter sent to news media, business people, educators, students and government leaders.

Biggest issues. Using a variety of tools to keep his finger on the pulse of the region, it's understandable that Gnuschke is opinionated when it comes to the most pressing economic issues facing the Memphis area. At the top of his list is the quality of Memphis and Shelby County's labor force.

"That's an issue that transcends education, training and the demographics of our population - really the aging of our population and the aging of our work force," he said. "Also at the top of the list is economic development, in that you can have the best labor force in the world, but unless you have jobs, that doesn't do much for you.

"So it's merging those two interests that's a primary challenge, I think, not only for us, but anybody who's interested in what's happening in the economy in the state and local area."

On the horizon. Looking to the future, another of the group's major initiatives is a partnership with the Memphis Area Association of Realtors to create a real estate research center. Gnuschke said MAAR is providing funding for the group to conduct research on such real estate topics as property taxes and price appreciation.

The project is still being developed, and the research group is in the process of hiring a geographic information specialist.

"I think it's going to be good information," Gnuschke said.

PROPERTY SALES 97 410 20,632
MORTGAGES 116 472 23,745
BUILDING PERMITS 227 1,085 42,594
BANKRUPTCIES 60 300 13,180