VOL. 131 | NO. 35 | Thursday, February 18, 2016
City Council Punts Minority Business Issue to Panel
By Bill Dries
Memphis City Council members debated at length Tuesday, Feb. 16, whether or not to form a committee to explore the lack of minority business growth locally.
And the debate mirrors a larger debate across the city’s political and business communities about the way forward on the long-standing issue of minority business growth in a city where the minority is the majority of the population but not of the business receipts.
The council ultimately voted to form an ad hoc committee tasked with coming up with a set of recommendations in three months to improve city government’s contract spending with minority businesses.
The recommendations could also include positions on whether the Economic Development Growth Engine should require a percentage of minority business contracting of private businesses who receive tax breaks from EDGE.
An EDGE plan on that point and others is expected in March.
Council member Berlin Boyd questioned the need for the ad hoc committee but not the need for greater minority business growth.
“The creation of another ad hoc committee is basically kicking the can down the road,” Boyd said.
He also cited the construction of the Ikea store in Cordova that met a goal of 25 percent minority participation with contractor Linkous Construction Co. hiring four women-owned local businesses as subcontractors for a total of $4.5 million.
“Zero African-American participation,” Boyd said. “Not one red cent. … So we can discuss this all day long but until we take a different approach, we’re not going to get there.”
Council member Frank Colvett agreed on the need for change but defended Linkous.
“It’s a good construction firm,” he said. “They followed the rules. But I think the rules need to be amended because there are zero African-American firms.”
Council member Janis Fullilove called for the committee and said a 90-day or 60-day review was worth the wait.
She was also critical of Boyd.
“I don’t believe a neophyte woke up one morning and is so in love with black people that you want to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” she said.
Boyd said there is a sense of urgency without the council forming a committee.
“Some of my colleagues have been here for over eight-plus years and this disparity has gone on for as long as I can remember,” he said. “I highlight the white elephant in the room and now we want to create a task force.”
Greater Memphis Chamber leaders watched the council debate closely.
The chamber has been talking with its business members about a way to include black businesses specifically and minority local businesses in general in more private business to business contracting.
Former council member Shea Flinn, who is senior vice president of the Chairman’s Circle of the chamber, said there is time for an ad hoc group to wrestle with the entrenched issue for another three months.
“It’s a thorny, thorny issue,” he told the council. “Do not take a ready, shoot, aim approach to this.”
Flinn was also quick to say the city doesn’t need to mount its own disparity study as county government recently did or limit its view of the problem to city government contracts only.
“We all know the disparity exists,” he said. “The question is why and it cannot be siloed into PILOTs, city government, county government or the private sector. We have a systemic failure in our community.”
Council member Martavius Jones disagreed.
“Do we need an entire congregation?” he asked at one point. “Ultimately we are talking about how we spend Memphis’ money. We are not talking about private dollars.”
Jones was the only vote against forming the ad hoc group.