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VOL. 129 | NO. 119 | Thursday, June 19, 2014

Future Uncertain But Innovation Team’s Work to Continue

By Andy Meek

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Though the future of the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team in Memphis is uncertain at this point, the work it’s involved in – incubating businesses and activating neighborhoods, for example – appears set to continue.

MEMMobile, a program that launched a group of retail trucks like The Bikesmith, is part of the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

Abby Miller, a project manager with the group, said the team’s future remains unknown beyond 2014 and that it’s looking at a variety of funding options, “but nothing at this point is certain.” However, she said, the group has secured a long-term partner for each of its initiatives to ensure their sustainability.

One such partner is alt.consulting, which will help continue things like the team’s MEMShop and MEMMobile efforts.

The team’s origin stems from a few years ago when the city received a grant from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s charitable foundation to help revive the inner city in unique ways. The local team was formed around the grant to pursue that goal in creative ways, and among them, MEMShop and MEMMobile were designed to do things like, in MEMShop’s case, help launch storefront businesses on a short-term basis to create momentum in an area.

Cynthia Norwood, managing director of the nonprofit management consulting firm alt.consulting, said both it and the innovation team piloted MEMShop together, but now it’s been turned over to alt.consulting.

Another such recent project of the innovation team is MEMMobile, an initiative that included a variety of other outside partners and involved launching a set of retail trucks in Memphis – basically mobile retail shops that operate similar to food trucks.

“MEMMobile started as a one-time project to sort of be an alternative revitalization strategy for communities around the city through mobile retail,” Norwood said. “They had about $75,000 the innovation team raised, and they did a request for proposals and had a competitive process to solicit applicants.

“We selected the top five businesses to launch with a two-year forgivable loan, and over that two years we’re monitoring their businesses, looking at their business model, talking about what’s working and what isn’t working. Most of them we’re helping with setting up bookkeeping and talking about ideas around marketing, and things like that.”

Some of those retail trucks were part of existing businesses, like Downtown’s Sache retail store that launched its own T-shirt truck. Others, like Henny Penny Mobile Boutique, which sells women’s clothing and accessories, are essentially startups.

Then there’s the MEMShop program, which already in Memphis has done things like implement pop-up shops in vacant storefronts around the city. Miller said it’s about taking vacant commercial space and “activating it” for the neighborhood, specifically looking at the retail component of economic vitality.

“For MEMShop, we’re in South Memphis this year, and hopefully we’ll be in the Medical District/Edge neighborhood next year,” Norwood said. “MEMShop launched two businesses in May in South Memphis, basically across from the Four-Way Restaurant. They’re a women’s shoe store and a home computer repair business that also sells used computers and tablets. In the fall, we’re hoping we’re going to launch up to four additional businesses in the same area.

“We have about 10 to 12 applications now I’ve received for the fall launch, and the funding is already there from the innovation team.”

That program, Norwood said, involves identifying vacant space, negotiating with property owners to use the space for six months and then vetting businesses to locate in the space.

“We help subsidize a portion of the rent for the business owners we place in there, and for that six months, the business owner gets marketing consulting and managerial training as a wraparound service for the six months they’re in that location,” Norwood said. “So, through programs like this, we’re incubating businesses and activating neighborhoods.”

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