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VOL. 129 | NO. 171 | Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Push for Broader Minority Business Participation Grows

By Bill Dries

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A larger share of business for minority- and women-owned local businesses should begin with an inventory that matches existing businesses with existing opportunities.

100 Black Men of Memphis Chairman Ron Redwing, Latino Memphis Director Mauricio Calvo and Darrell Cobbins, CEO of Universal Commercial Real Estate, discussed minority contracts and business on "Behind the Headlines" Friday, Aug. 29.

And three leaders of the recently revived effort to build that share of business say from there the local Memphis economy overall can grow.

“We are talking about opportunities for the majority of this community at the end of the day,” said Ron Redwing, president of the group 100 Black Men on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “This is not just business for business sake. We’re talking about issues of drugs and violence, particularly youth violence. What we are looking at is a systemic problem with young folk with no hope, who are in despair and don’t believe that things can get better for them.”

The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Redwing and Universal Commercial Real Estate CEO Darrell Cobbins began talking about a more aggressive and active push for minority-owned businesses to have a share of public and private contracts earlier this year.

Some of it was a reaction to comments Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks made chastising a Hispanic business leader for comparing the hardships facing Latinos in Memphis to those faced by African-Americans.

Mauricio Calvo, director of Latino Memphis Inc., was among those who reacted to the criticism by attempting to shift back to the issue of minority business.

“While that was a really awkward moment, I think the good things out of that is that people are talking about it. I’m not saying she created this,” Calvo said. “But it did create a sense of let’s regroup and talk about this issue. I think it was an invitation to go back to the table.”

Cobbins noted that a 1994 disparity study – the last comprehensive study done on the disparity in how much business goes to minority-owned businesses – put gross receipts for businesses owned by minorities and women at approximately 1 percent for the Memphis metropolitan area. U.S. Census data in 2007 put it at .08 percent – about a year before the onset of the national recession.

“I think we can probably assume that number is even worse,” Cobbins said of the impact of the recession. “The impetus for this recent push was that we need to examine as a community that issue as a priority.”

The urgency is in local poverty rates for African-Americans in Memphis that is 32 percent higher than the national rate and 72 percent higher for Latinos than the national rate.

The effort includes private business efforts outside of government contracts for which the Shelby County Commission earlier this year commissioned another disparity study as another part of the fallout from the comments by Brooks.

Redwing initially was concerned the disparity study would mask or obscure more immediate efforts to address the problem directly and more rapidly.

“These numbers can’t be reached through government alone,” he said. “It has to be a partnership with the private sector. … We’re not talking about reinventing the wheel. The one thing we know is there has to be a change for Memphis to become the city of choice and to make the kind of differences that we are talking about.”

Calvo said a push to use more local businesses gets at the disparity faced by minority-owned businesses because those minorities are the majority in Memphis.

“I go back to a push for local businesses to have an important share,” he said. “If you make a push for local businesses, you are automatically sharing that wealth with the people here who are minorities and otherwise.”

Cobbins also called for different priorities in education.

“When we are educating our young people, we are educating them not to be laborers and workers. But we should be educating and empowering them to be entrepreneurs and innovators,” he said. “The Memphis that we are looking to create should be one of innovation and entrepreneurship. … Where I went to school – Memphis University School – they’re not talking to them about being workers. They are talking to them about being leaders.”

Cobbins, who is on the board of Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, touts the utility as a model of how diversity in contracting can work with a local bidding preference with a goal of making sure dollars spent by the utility circulate in the local economy.

That doesn’t make the utility immune from discussion about its commitment.

The Memphis City Council, in August, voted down an $8.8 million contract the utility board approved with a Lexington, Ky., construction company for three years’ worth of construction to meet federal standards for utility reliability. The council’s decision was based on concerns that the work wasn’t going to a local firm or to workers employed already at the utility.

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