The New Tri-State Defender periodically provides newsmakers with an unfiltered forum to address current affairs. Readers can then dissect the offered viewpoints, comparing and contrasting what they read to what they have heard and/or thought. This week, Mayor AC Wharton Jr. is at the plate. With the flak recently directed his way, the TSD was particularly interested in knowing what he thinks is up with that.
Q: You've taken a lot of criticism throughout the budget process from Council members, union leaders and city employees, and citizens slamming you for lack of leadership, not supporting employees, pandering to big business and doing nothing for small businesses. How do you respond to the criticism?
A: I don't mind criticism. It motivates me to work harder to prove the critics wrong. I just wish the critics would tell the truth and make sure they have the facts before they criticize. Instead of responding to every negative comment, I remain focused on the strategic priorities of my administration: creating safe and vibrant neighborhoods; investing in our youth; providing opportunities for economic prosperity for all citizens; promoting excellence in government. We've made good progress in all of these areas and remain focused on all the work still left to be done to make Memphis a City of Choice.
Q: We hear a lot about the tax breaks given to big businesses in the form of PILOTS. What are you doing to grow small, locally-owned businesses?
A: I have a strong commitment to opening up economic opportunities to all citizens. This is why the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team is working on several initiatives to jumpstart economic development in the heart of our city.
For example, the Economic Gardening program is an entrepreneurial approach that grows the local economy from within ("inside – out" strategy) by providing strategic business information to local stage-two companies – those small businesses with 10 to 99 employees that have been around for at least a couple of years and have seen success generating revenue. These owners are often stretched too thin by the day-to-day management to develop strategies to take their business to the next level. The Economic Gardening program helps these entrepreneurs by providing them with market research and high–level technical assistance, equipping them to make more strategic decisions, avoid costly mistakes, and successfully grow their enterprise.
Also, we are implementing a Neighborhood Retail Strategy that (1) supports local retailers in adopting modern business practices; and (2) attracts retail to meet the unique needs of each neighborhood. Each neighborhood retail strategy includes a market analysis and valuation, visual merchandising and store planning workshops, retail planning analysis and implementation strategy. This will be done in collaboration with the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, EDGE, Housing and Community Development, and Community LIFT and MORE.
Local, African-American businesses are benefiting from this program, including Mr. Clemmie Lester, owner of Lester's Grocery in South Memphis. Mr. Lester is receiving [a] range of technical assistance from market studies to grocery operations as he seeks to open a full-service grocery [store] in South Memphis after his corner store was destroyed by fire.
Mr. Bates, owner of 4-Way Grill on Mississippi Blvd., received technical assistance for marketing of his business, as well as a fully functioning website to help drive business to his restaurant.
Tyler's Grocery on McLemore Ave. is receiving technical assistance for store layout and façade improvements to grow their market share.
The Pop-Up Retail Initiative is a public-private partnership that enables businesses to temporarily operate in vacant commercial space. The first four businesses started as a part of the MEMShop incubator that launched on Broad Ave in April 2013 are all small, minority or women owned businesses — My Heavenly Creations – Owners Shalene and Jay McLaughlin, NJ Woods Gallery owned by NJ and Khara Woods, Indie Market, owned by Tonya Tate, and 5 in 1 Social Club, co-owned by Alice Laskey-Castle.
Also, I established MORE, the Memphis Office of Resources and Enterprise, to increase efforts by the city to help minority, women-owned and small businesses take advantage of business opportunities. MORE assists in connecting businesses to a wide range of resources that can help them better navigate the economic and business landscape. In fact, MORE will be launching a web site soon to help Procurement Officers or Diversity Managers connect with minority vendors.
From this past fiscal year to the current one, we have seen a 74 percent increase in contracting opportunities for minority and women-owned businesses in city contracting. The largest city contract earned by an African-American company — $9 million was awarded to Will Nelson of Nelson Construction in 2011 for a sewer-relocation project that was part of an incentive package for the Mitsubishi factory. And Mitsubishi and Electrolux have both exceeded the agreed upon minority participation goals.
Q: Crime continues to be an issue in our community. Is the City doing anything new or different to address the root cause of crime?
A: Safe & Vibrant Neighborhoods is a strategic priority for my administration, and we are making an impact. Violent crime is down from the levels we saw in 2006. It remained flat from 2011 to 2012 and it is down in the first six months of 2013. We are concentrating on crime hot spots, and are making real change through the Community Outreach Program (COP), Multi-Agency Gang Unit, Project Safeways, and the Gun Down program. We are deploying these new, strategic law enforcement initiatives aimed at those most likely to offend in the places where they operate. Our city is now better equipped to manage unresolved conflicts between individuals and families, which usually result in violence, through expanded school intervention programs, and new street and hospital violence intervention programs that came about through the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team. This team was created to develop novel initiatives to advance the city in very specific ways. Transformation takes time and when you stop focusing on the negative you can see the positive changes taking place all over Memphis.
The 25 Square Blight Eradication Program is transforming communities all over Memphis as we get rid of abandoned properties that breed crime, lower property values and hinder economic development. It is a comprehensive strategy to clean-up the entire city, 25 square blocks at a time. In 2012 alone, we rid the city of 1,228 abandoned properties, mowed more than 21,000 vacant lots, and maintained and paved more than 100 miles of streets. The project created business growth and employment opportunities for 30 local businesses that employed more than 304 people, including ex-offenders hired to carry out various aspects of the 25 Square program.
Q: We often hear people complain that there is nothing for young people in Memphis. What programs or plans do you have to address the needs of children, youths, and young professionals?
A: Investing in the next generation is critical to the future of this city. I am a strong advocate for Pre-K programs that establish a firm foundation for educational success for our children. There is a ballot measure now before City Council to increase the sales tax and have proceeds set aside to fund Pre-K programs. I fully support this and hope the Council will pass it and give citizens a chance to vote on it.
Through the Memphis Ambassadors Program we continue to educate, train and empower high school students to be leaders in their community. This summer, 440 students participated in a leadership camp that included college tours in Little Rock and Nashville, and ACT prep sessions. Also, 125 graduates of the ambassador program participated in a summer internship program getting first-hand work experience in various divisions of city government. Also, there is the WIN (Workforce Investment Network) Summer Jobs program, and the Summer Food Program served more than 35,000 meals a week to children in our Community Center summer camps.
Making Memphis a City of Choice for young professionals is another key area of focus. We strive to make decisions today that ensure Memphis will be an attractive place now and for the next generation to live, work and raise families. We are doing things to make Memphis more walkable, safe and inviting to pedestrians and cyclists. We are starting the shift from a completely car-centric city to one that embraces all modes – vehicle, transit, cyclists, and pedestrians. These are things that help promote healthy lifestyles, a sense of community and create a strong connection between the city and citizens.