Giving Memphis an EDGE
Economic-development expert Reid Dulberger works for the city's future.
Last year, if you read Forbes magazine you’d have the notion that Memphis was one of the most poverty-stricken, miserable, crime-ridden cities in the country.
The city also received a low ranking on Forbes’ annual list of the “Best Places for Businesses and Careers.”
To the average company that had intentions of bringing its business to the Bible Belt, the aforementioned classifications might inspire a change of heart.
But one local organization is refusing to allow these national rankings to tarnish the city’s economic credibility: the Memphis and Shelby County Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE).
Created in 2011 by Memphis mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, the organization looks to transform the city into one of the nation’s most sought-after places for building, expanding, or relocating a business.
Reid Dulberger is leading the organization. He previously held roles in economic development in Ohio and New York before migrating to the Bluff City, where he served as vice president at the Greater Memphis Chamber, in charge of the MemphisED program. Dulberger took office as the first president of EDGE in January 2012.
He anticipates that EDGE will help the Memphis MSA (metropolitan statistical area) boast a better economy in 2012 than the previous year.
“In 2011, Shelby County lost approximately 41,000 private-sector jobs, a little under 10 percent of where we were in 2006,” Dulberger says. “That’s a significant hit, being tied with as much logistics as we have here and as logistics-dependent as we are.
“We ride the national economy when it goes up and, unfortunately, slide with it when it goes down,” he continues. “We have some ground to make up, and it will take us a while to do so. I do believe the economy is heading in the right direction.”
Amid various projects in the works for 2012, the organization will provide small- and medium-sized businesses with resource and financial assistance by the summer.
No existing incentive tools really resonate with small businesses, so EDGE is creating an economic development-financing program primarily for them.
Dulberger says the county’s local economic development incentive, the PILOT (Payment-in-Lieu-of-Tax) program, is “too complicated, cumbersome, and expensive for small projects.”
“It doesn’t really matter if the user or owner is small or large, small projects simply don’t make sense with the PILOT program,” Dulberger says. “State incentives are also largely geared to larger projects, so at the moment for small businesses, or at least small projects in our community, we don’t have much to offer. We think the financial programs will help fill that gap.”
EDGE plans to link businesses that have smaller projects with existing organizations that can provide information in a quick, inexpensive, and easy-to-digest format.
The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), the Tennessee Small Business Development Centers, and the Small Business Administration are among the national organizations EDGE seeks to pair companies with.
The resources provided would help business owners identify new markets and customers and get a handle on new technologies.
“Small business owners don’t have the time or resources to go out and do this on their own,” Dulberger says. “They certainly don’t have the staff to assign it to someone, but if you can get them that information, they are, in many instances, very well-positioned to expand their sales. And if they’re expanding sales, they ultimately will expand employment, and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Dulberger says new projects in the city such as Electrolux, Mitsubishi Electric, Blues City Brewery, the Great American Steamship Company, and Bass Pro Shops are expected to help lift the area economically as well.
Despite the new projects in the city, Memphis was ranked 147 among the 200 metro areas on Forbes’ list of the “Best Places for Businesses and Careers” in 2011.
Dulberger says the organization won’t allow the ranking to slow its progress, but did admit that the city’s economy in 2011 “could have been worse, it could’ve been better, and it certainly wasn’t as good as we wanted it to be.
“When you delve down into what goes into [those surveys] — the mechanism for how the numbers are crunched — you find that the vast majority are perhaps well-intentioned but not well-designed,” Dulberger continues. “They may be relatively quick and easy and inexpensive to do, but that doesn’t make the analysis correct. We understand Memphis and Shelby County, we know what our strengths are, we know what our opportunities are, and we know that when it comes to attracting certain types of companies to the community, Memphis and Shelby County are extremely attractive locations.”
Outside of developing projects that better the economy, Dulberger says EDGE’s main goal by summer 2012 is getting its administrative infrastructure in place.
Although the organization has legally existed since January 2011 and had a board since August 2011, it’s been difficult to carry out plans without a staff or office. After being confirmed by the Memphis City Council, Dulberger is currently the only paid staff member for the organization.
“We are doing a lot of listening and getting a lot of ideas,” Dulberger says of the economic-development input gathered from the community. “Until we get a little bit of an administrative infrastructure set in place, it’s just impossible to deal with much of this. The day-to-day task of keeping the boat afloat is much more than a full-time job, but I take lots of notes and the ideas are things that I’m willing to come back to and get on as soon as we can.”