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VOL. 126 | NO. 20 | Monday, January 31, 2011

Haslam Chimes in on Local Issues

By Bill Dries

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Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has a warning about his developing set of regional economic development strategies.

“The days where government was able to be seen as somebody who was always giving something are gone, quite frankly,” Haslam told a group of 40 business and civic leaders at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. “They’re gone for at least the foreseeable future.”

Haslam’s estimate is that his administration will have $1.5 billion less in real money to spend in the new fiscal year that begins July 1. The state budget for that fiscal year will be his first and Haslam is setting his administration’s priorities accordingly.

So when he opened the floor for suggestions his initial request was simple and blunt.

“What can the state do and it can’t be money,” Haslam asked.

What Haslam got from his Memphis audience amounted to calls for attention and support from the new administration on the issues underlying economic development plums like the city’s recent success in getting the Electrolux Home Products plant located in Memphis.

Archie Willis, president of Community Capital, called for recognition among state housing agencies that the city has affordable housing needs distinct and very different from other parts of the state.

“We lose something in the translation,” said Willis, who has been involved in the development of the city’s mixed-use, mixed-income developments.

State support for education reforms already funded by the private Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the federal Race to the Top program was the first suggestion from philanthropist J.R. ‘Pitt’ Hyde.

Methodist Healthcare CEO Gary Shorb said the U of M should have more autonomy.

“We think this will significantly strengthen the university,” Shorb told Haslam during the session that included U of M president Dr. Shirley Raines.

Haslam agreed.

“I think that Memphis should have its own board of directors with responsibilities of some things they haven’t had in the past,” he replied as he specifically said he favored giving a university board the ability to appoint its own president and set tuition rates, items now governed by the Board of Regents as part of a statewide higher education system.

Greater Memphis Chamber president John Moore applauded the regional approach as he called for better connections with state economic development officials.

“We’re such a wide state,” Moore said. “There are many ways we are the same but also from an industry perspective we also have different focus areas.”

Steve Lockwood of the Frayser Community Development Corp. said a regional approach shouldn’t get so broad that it loses the ability to focus on specific problems.

“In communities like Frayser, we have the most dangerous unemployed people in the city. … Unless we find programs that address these people where they are and that is relevant to them and their needs, then it’s not very relevant to the community in which I live,” Lockwood said. “The regional approach, I get it. But you need a localized application of that that means something to people that are not at all theoretical hanging out right in front of my office.”

Dr. Bill Evans, director and CEO of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, sounded a similar theme, saying development should be built on a foundation of priorities “that speak to Tennessee being a place with a vision of 21st century jobs, a great place to start a business, a state that’s a great place to raise a family.”

“Having the right strategic plan is critical,” Evans said. “But at the end of the day culture trumps strategy.”

Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane asked if Haslam would push for improved state incentives for film and television production in the state, citing a litany of productions the city lost to other cities and states with better incentives.

Haslam said some of those states have “overbid.”

PROPERTY SALES 61 61 6,453
MORTGAGES 46 46 4,081
BUILDING PERMITS 113 113 15,474
BANKRUPTCIES 19 19 3,289