Hundreds of county officials from all over the country are gathering this week in Shelby County for the 30th Annual Economic Development Conference of the National Organization of Black County Officials (NOBCO).
And from all indications, said the host commissioner, all eyes are on Memphis.
"I am so very proud to have our city on display," said Shelby County Commissioner Justin Ford. "Memphis is not a dangerous place. Memphis is a beautiful city with gracious, hospitable people. That was my central message when I made the case to have the convention come here."
Wednesday kicked off scheduled activities with a guided bus tour of Shelby County.
"Some of the members were on their way to see Slavehaven," said Ford. "They had already been treated to some of our other sights, and so many expressed amazement at all our city has to offer."
NOBCO serves more than 3,000 African-American elected and appointed county officials in 50 states The annual conference is a magnet for high-profile people of influence, with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, and Fifth District Missouri Congressman and former Congressional Black Caucus Chair Emanuel Cleaver II all slotted to take part.
Derek Albert, President of Albert & Associates and chairman of the NOBCO Business Roundtable, said the theme of the conference is, "The Grass is Greener where you water it." The objective, he said, is to figure out how to water the grass.
"One of the reasons we bring these guys in is so that we can understand how to participate in that (opportunities)," said Albert. Undersecretaries and different administrators from Washington, D.C. will detail how to get involved with the opportunities available and provide direct contacts, he said.
Ford's journey to his post as this year's host official began about a year ago when he was serving as chairman of the General Government Committee.
"I went to Detroit in May where last year's NOBCO conference was being held. Just to see the impact this meeting had on the city. Five to six hundred county officials all over the nation who made this country's local governments work. I knew we had to get the conference here."
Before Commissioner Ford left Detroit, it was all but settled that the city of Baton Rouge in Louisiana would be hosting the 2014 event.
"I said, 'Please bring the conference to Memphis next year.' But I was told they would bring the conference year after next because Baton Rouge had already left a check for 2014. I came on back home, but I didn't give up. I begged and pleaded with them to let Memphis host the next convention."
Ford promised that if Memphis got the opportunity to host in 2014, that "We would lay it all out" for conventioneers.
"Today, these officials found out that I wasn't just talking. I felt so good Wednesday when some members were telling us how thought provoking and intimate their experience has already been. And this is just Wednesday, the first day of the conference. We want to make a lasting impression on these officials."
Noting that people have for years compared Memphis to Atlanta, Ford said on Tuesday he went to DeKalb County (Georgia) officials and asked them, "'What is Atlanta doing that we are not doing for our children.' They had the same questions for me. I would say the competitive edge Atlanta once had over Memphis is gone. We've come a long, long way since the '90s."
Ford said pulling everything together has been a "wonderful bi-partisan effort." County Commissioner Terry Roland, a prominent Republican, treated NOBCO guests to a luncheon during their tour of Shelby County.
The conference stretches through Sunday. Attendees will not only exchange information about securing government grant money to support community initiatives, they also will be privy to panel discussions designed to tackle tough urban concerns such as juvenile delinquency and soaring dropout rates among African-American teens.
Thursday will feature an emphasis on students, with a visit planned to the Stax Museum and Soulsville Academy, where students will perform for the visiting dignitaries. Later, Ed Stanton III, U.S. Atty. for the Western District of Tennessee, will make a presentation on Internet awareness and safety.
Friday's schedule will feature a tour of the National Civil Rights Museum as well as a panel discussion about "Smart Juvenile Justice." The panel will include Judge Joe Brown; Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks; Dr. Willie W. Herenton, former Memphis Mayor and now charter school operator; Judge Tarik Sugarmon; and former Shelby County Commissioner Julian Bolton.
"Ya'll are not the only ones dealing with it," Albert said, referring to issues involving the administering of juvenile justice.
Saturday is a business day when officials will be attending various meetings and workshops to enhance leadership and effective governance.
Sunday will be headlined by an 8:30 a.m. prayer breakfast with keynote speaker, the Rev. Robert J. Williams Jr., co-pastor of St. Paul Church in Prince Georges County, Md. Closing remarks will be delivered by Councilwoman Aralanda Williams of Terrebonne Parish, La.