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VOL. 126 | NO. 122 | Thursday, June 23, 2011

Mayor Wharton Shares Minority Biz Plans

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. told a minority business forum his administration will begin questioning those who want to do business with the city about their use of minority and locally owned businesses in general.

“What we want to see is what are you doing in all those other business dealings that you have,” Wharton said Wednesday, July 22, at a forum on minority business inclusion that included Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and the mayors of Bartlett, Collierville and Germantown (for related story, see Page 1). “I ask them about the total universe.”

In recent weeks, Wharton has been gradually rolling out a new minority business strategy for his administration designed to improve the share of city contracts with minority and locally owned firms in a city whose population is majority African-American.

The strategy includes a Minority Business Development Oversight Committee that is talking with individual division directors at City Hall and other managers with power over contracts.

Wharton said the committee recently “grilled” Memphis police brass about who has the contracts for the psychological testing of police recruits.

He told the crowd of more than 100 business leaders at the forum Downtown that it’s not that the city and businesses that contract with the city don’t want to do business with minority businesses.

“We never thought of that as a business community,” he said of the firms that might bid for the psychological testing contract.

And for companies struggling in the economic downturn, Wharton said they often won’t make a bid if there’s not some likelihood they will get the contract.

“If you’re on a tight budget and you’re told to prepare your bid package, you’re going to spend thousands of dollars,” Wharton said. “You want to feel deep down inside that at least I stand a fair chance of being considered and a fair chance of being selected. This is why we’re insisting on this wherever possible.”

Noticeably absent from the strategy so far is an attempt at a legal requirement to back a percentage goal for minority business participation. That is likely to remain the case with Wharton instead using the power of persuasion over a strategy that has led to lengthy litigation and several landmark court rulings over 30 years.

“The law is perhaps not the friendliest way to approach it. … I think we ought to approach it as if we are a private corporation,” he said, casting citizens as shareholders.

“Our laws were never written to take stuff away from people. They were written to protect what we have. … Someone might come in and say I really want a bigger piece of the pie and the law is going to help me do that. That reliance is misplaced.”

So is a reliance on city contracts under the city’s five-year Capital Improvements Project, or CIP, budget. The fiscal year 2012 budget for construction and other one-time expenditures financed with bonds is at less than $70 million – a historic low for a budget that in past years has been crammed with more construction project than the city could conceivably carry out in a year’s time.

“You’re going to see our stepping outside the confines of contracts with the city,” Wharton said. “If you are in any way in a contractual relationship with the city of Memphis we are going to expect you to live up to the same standards you would live up to if you were signing a contract with the city of Memphis. … The key word is leverage, leverage, leverage.”

Wharton also said the Mitsubishi Electric Power Products Inc. construction project will involve a “major announcement” about minority participation. He didn’t offer any further details.

He added the city has a goal of 35 percent minority participation in the Great American Steamboat Co. project to bring the American Queen steamboat to the Memphis riverfront as its port.

It’s a goal GASC President and CEO John Waggoner eagerly accepted and affirmed earlier this year when he and Wharton announced the project.

PROPERTY SALES 128 234 13,285
MORTGAGES 80 152 8,323