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VOL. 126 | NO. 45 | Monday, March 7, 2011

City Kicked Into ‘Overdrive’ to Lure MEPPI

By Andy Meek

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In February 2010, Memphis showed up in the No. 3 spot on that year’s ranking of “America’s Most Miserable Cities” by Forbes magazine.

It wasn’t publicly discussed at the time, but that undesirable attention also nearly spoiled Memphis’ effort to convince Mitsubishi Electric Power Products Inc. to build a transformer manufacturing plant here. Ultimately, Memphis won the plant. MEPPI announced in mid-February it would build the facility at Belz Enterprises Inc.-owned Rivergate Industrial Park.

“We made it through the (site selection) process up until February of last year,” said Mark Herbison, senior vice president for the Greater Memphis Chamber. “And we were thinking around that time we’re going to win this thing.”

Chamber officials had worked closely with local leaders in the recruitment of MEPPI. Herbison said hundreds of man-hours were put into providing data on every aspect of doing business in Memphis. Company officials also came here to visit about a dozen times.

“Then in February, we get named one of the most miserable cities,” Herbison said. “And we get a call from the consultant. He said, ‘They’re going to cut you guys from this project.’ He said, ‘They’re really spooked by this, and unless there’s something you guys can put on the table, it’s not looking good.’”

So chamber officials went into overdrive.

Anyone who saw Memphis Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay give introductory remarks at MEPPI’s announcement last month that it’s building a $200 million plant in Memphis got a taste of how far the chamber went.

The chamber prepared a splashy booklet for the site selection consultant to pass along to MEPPI that struck back against the Forbes mention, point by point. Also included were letters in support of Memphis from local leaders who would not usually be overtly involved in a major business recruitment effort.

The Forbes piece argued Memphis has “the second highest rate of violent crimes.” So included in the chamber presentation was a letter dated March 1, 2010, from former Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, criticizing the way the area’s crime statistics were portrayed.

“To a large degree, we are being penalized by the fact that we do a much more accurate job of reporting our crimes than many jurisdictions do,” Gibbons wrote. “In addition, it is obvious that Forbes is relying to a large degree on outdated data.”

Dave Moelter, plant leader at Owens Corning in Memphis, wrote a letter explaining why Owens Corning in September 2009 announced a $22 million investment in its Memphis plant. He said factors that influenced the company’s decision included the “quality, loyalty and productivity of our Memphis workforce.”

The Forbes piece argued Memphis’ “public officials are convicted at an alarming rate.” So then-U.S. Attorney Larry Laurenzi wrote a letter attacking “very outdated material.”

He said it appeared the Forbes data came from a 2007 document that drew on older corruption data.

“The high number of public corruption matters noted in the 2007 report was directly attributable to a highly successful undercover operation which was brought down in early 2005,” Laurenzi wrote.

Forbes argued Memphis has a lone major sports franchise and that the Memphis Grizzlies are “one of the worst teams in the NBA.”

So Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins got in on the letter writing. Grizzlies players also signed a basketball that was sent with the chamber presentation package.

“I have taken a vested interest in making Memphis a better place to live because I believe in this city and the people who live here,” Hollins’ letter reads. “I think you should too. I hope you enjoy this autographed ball – a personal gift from my team to yours.”

The package is introduced with letters from Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. – which was released publicly last year – and Herbison.

PROPERTY SALES 89 339 12,708
MORTGAGES 42 227 7,982
BUILDING PERMITS 171 518 29,639
BANKRUPTCIES 32 129 6,029