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VOL. 133 | NO. 175 | Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Karl Dean Pledges Bigger State Role in Memphis Economic Development

By Bill Dries

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Democratic nominee for governor Karl Dean said he's heard complaints that Memphis has “been cut adrift" by the state of Tennessee. "That will end when I’m sworn in as governor in January,” Dean said Tuesday, Sept. 4, during a day of campaigning in West Tennessee. (Daily News/Patrick Lantrip)

Karl Dean, the Democratic nominee for governor, says each of the 61 days he has campaigned in Memphis, someone has complained that the city has “been cut adrift by the state of Tennessee.”

“That will end when I’m sworn in as governor in January,” Dean said Tuesday, Sept. 4, during a day of campaigning in West Tennessee that included stops in Memphis and in Brownsville. In Brownsville, Dean promoted completion of the regional megasite in Haywood County.

Dean pledged more state funding as well as a larger share of state contracts for minority-owned and small businesses.

“I think we need to be putting more resources – which incentives would be part of that – into Memphis and into West Tennessee,” Dean said. He added, “I think it’s much more competitive here and we need to balance that out and plus I think there’s a need here going back to the poverty rate.”

Dean’s campaign is built around his experience as mayor of Nashville during the depths of the recession and ending as the capital city’s economic boom began. During the primary election campaign, Dean acknowledged that Memphis competes for economic development in a different environment dominated by its proximity to the Arkansas and Mississippi state lines.

“Memphis has to do battle every day with Mississippi and Arkansas,” he told supporters Tuesday.

But Dean also said there should be a long-term economic development strategy for Memphis involving the state, focusing on a better-trained workforce.

“We can succeed and have incentives and do everything else that you can do to attract business,” Dean said. “But unless you have the people here to fill the jobs, it’s not going to happen. Whether that’s more college-educated folks or whether it’s having technical and vocational education that helps fill jobs, that’s critical too. In the long run, I think that issue is going to be bigger than anything else. That’s where we need to be investing.”

Democratic lawmakers from Memphis, Rep. Raumesh Akbari and Rep. G.A. Hardaway, say they’re encouraged by Dean’s willingness to make commitments to Memphis and Shelby County.

Akbari, the Democratic nominee for Senate District 29 in the Nov. 6 election, points out the economic development announcements coming out of Gov. Bill Haslam’s office usually focus on Middle and East Tennessee.

By putting a new emphasis on Memphis within the state Economic and Community Development Department, in addition to giving a boost to women- and minority-owned businesses, Dean is “trying to replicate” what he did as a two-term mayor of Nashville across the state, said Akbari, who attended Dean’s appearance.

“That’s exciting for me because I think Memphis, to me, is on the verge of really moving forward, but we do need a lot of help from the state to get there,” she said.

Dean unveiled a Shelby County and Memphis economic development plan Tuesday, Sept. 4, promising to set up a state Department and Economic Development office in Memphis.

Dean made three other proposals to bolster the city and county:

Recruit businesses to areas in need of development such as the Memphis Regional Megasite in Haywood County.

Build up businesses owned by minorities and women by improving procurement programs making it easier for them to compete for contracts.

Find a way to end Memphis’ cycle of poverty, in part by increasing funding for workforce development to enable residents to build their skills.

The governor’s office hasn’t necessarily ignored Memphis, Akbari noted, yet she added, “I think in general it seems like Memphis is kind of on an island by herself compared to the rest of the state.”

With that in mind, Akbari believes the state has to get more creative in providing more opportunities for small businesses and markets like the Memphis megasite in Haywood County. She pointed out competing with Mississippi and Arkansas is “brutal sometimes.”

Hardaway, the first sitting legislator to endorse Dean, said he is ready to help him win the Nov. 6 election against Republican Bill Lee based on Dean’s promise to renew economic development in Memphis as he did in Nashville.

“I’d like to have as many sky cranes in Memphis and Shelby County as they have in Nashville. That’s how we can measure success,” Hardaway says. “So, I like his commitment. He’s not afraid to say it.”

Hardaway pointed out Dean is “very specific” about building economic opportunities for women and ethnic groups, which he could do through executive order or legislative initiatives.

Dean not only can win the election, Hardaway said, but can force supermajority Republicans in the House and Senate to work with Democrats in the General Assembly. Dean would not be “learning on the job,” either, as Lee would have to do, Hardaway added.

Dean said voters face “two very different choices” in the Nov. 6 election between him and Lee, who is campaigning in Memphis on Wednesday.

“We differ on the kind of experience we have, the need to invest more in public education,” Dean said. “We differ on expanding access to health care for all Tennesseans. And we differ on the need to invest.”

But like Dean, Lee has campaigned in Memphis on a need to recognize the unique challenges of economic development growth in the city as well as the need for career and technical education.

Lee, who owns a mechanical contracting business in Franklin that employs 1,200, has been more insistent than Dean that two-year associate degrees and workforce training certification have been de-emphasized and forgotten in a push for four-year college degrees.

The Lee campaign countered by noting a plan he released in October 2017 committing to making sure Memphis and Shelby County play a “significant role” in better education, economic development and public safety in West Tennessee.

His plan touches on the burden of excise taxes on Memphis and Shelby County companies, the need for better vocational training, the role of nonprofit organizations such as ARISE2Red and Men of Valor and a shortage of police officers and prosecutors. Most specifically, Lee’s plan calls for increasing routes at Memphis International Airport and following through on a long-term vision for the Port of Memphis.

Both talked during the primary of paying more attention to Memphis and featured that promise in campaign ads targeted to the local market.

“I don’t think state government is wishing ill,” Dean said when asked about the relationship between state government and the city. “I think the governor clearly does not wish ill on Memphis and he wants to help Memphis.”

“But I think you’ve got to double down and you’ve got to say it’s important that we have some victories here. It’s important that we bring more business in,” he added. “I think long term for Memphis stabilizing the tax base, seeing that tax base grow is so critical. Once the tax base is really moving in the right direction, you are going to see benefits in public education, benefits in public safety, benefits in quality of life as you are able to fund all of these things.”

The winner of the Nov. 6 statewide election will have to balance competition among different parts of the state as site consultants and companies on the move or looking to expand, express general interest at first followed by more specific inquiries.

Dean noted Middle Tennessee’s unemployment rate is around 2 percent and the growth there attracts attention as well as growth beyond that.

“But I do think you’ve got to say we’re going to concentrate our efforts on the areas that need the help, the areas that need to have more attention, the areas that need to see more economic prosperity,” he said. “There is a rational way of doing it. And you can’t force people to locate a company anywhere. They will make their own decision. But you can help make it more attractive.”

Sam Stockard, Nashville correspondent for The Daily News, contributed to this story.

PROPERTY SALES 76 133 1,342
MORTGAGES 83 131 1,047
BUILDING PERMITS 190 277 3,028