(Photo: Lance Murphey)
In the eyes of Dexter Muller, Memphis’ shining attribute is that it’s too big for its britches.
Memphis is the smallest city in the country that has a NBA team, an airline hub and a zoo with a panda exhibit.
“If you compare us to our peers in terms of size, I think we’re much better because we’re always pushing the limit and trying to be bigger than we are, which that’s the kind of city that I want to live in, one that’s always pushing,” Muller said.
Muller, now respected as a local proponent of the city’s business, transportation and logistics assets, grew up in Central Gardens. He attended Idlewild and Bellevue for grade school, where his peers came from all walks of life.
His class was the first class at Central High School to be integrated. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated during his senior year.
“I didn’t really appreciate the impact of all that really until years later,” Muller said. “Memphis was just a completely different place back then, the relationships were a lot different and I wasn’t exposed to see the dichotomy that was in our community.”
Before obtaining his bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State University in political science, Muller studied engineering. It’s the blend of those two subjects that developed his passion for urban planning and economic development.
The young Muller got his first taste of data and demographics at the Office of Planning and Development working for $3 per hour. During his tenure, Muller worked for four mayors – Dick Hackett, Bill Morris, Jim Rout and Willie Herenton. When he left four years later to obtain his master’s degree in urban planning at Florida State, he had worked his way up to director of the agency.
Upon his arrival back to Memphis, Muller landed a job at Harland Bartholomew and Associates, a planning and engineering company, where he worked for cities and the military, acquiring a new fervor for public service. In 1988, he went back to work for the city and county as the director of economic development, a position he held for 12 years.
Because the main way to strengthen a neighborhood is by bringing in jobs and income, Muller naturally graduated from working in neighborhood revitalization into economic development.
“Economic development was fascinating to be in because you worked with a project and you knew usually in a short period of time whether you got it or not – sort of immediate gratification,” Muller said.
Muller was eventually hired as senior vice president for community development and logistics council director at the Greater Memphis Chamber, a position he holds to this day.
His job provides him the opportunity to work with people from the inner city and the poorest neighborhoods to the top boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies. While many might consider the chamber is only interested in big business, they don’t realize that 70 percent of its members come from businesses that employ 75 or less.
Today, Muller wears many hats. Current projects include expanding Graceland and ramping up Overton Park, the fairgrounds and the aerotropolis concept. He helps forge memorandums of understanding with partner cities such as Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, which are connected via rail to Memphis.
He’s bullish on Memphis because it’s big enough to have the amenities of a bigger city, but small enough to be a place where you can actually make a change. His career stops have taught him that one elected official or volunteer with passion for a cause can really make a difference.
John Moore, president and CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber, has seen firsthand Muller breathe life back into the city.
“Dexter Muller is the kind of professional any economic development organization would want on their team,” said Moore. “He has many years of experience working for and with governments on large projects, transportation infrastructure, and community planning. I can directly link Dexter’s involvement to many major successes that Memphis and Shelby County have experienced.”