by Jon W. Sparks
Phil Trenary, president and CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber, wants a job. Actually, multiple jobs.
He’s glad to see St. Jude bringing new ones Downtown, but he’s equally happy when any jobs come into Shelby County.
“The Chamber doesn’t care where a company is as long as it remains in Shelby County,” he says. “We want it to be here because it’s our tax base, our community. That’s what determines how we look going forward.”
So as far as the Chamber was concerned, it wasn’t about getting ServiceMaster to relocate Downtown, it was about keeping it in the community.
That said, Trenary was glad to see the company’s decision to take the long-dormant Peabody Place mall and repurpose it into an office space that would bring some 1,200 employees Downtown to work (and eat and play).
“A vibrant Downtown and a growing Downtown — especially one that attracts millennials — is a key ingredient of economic development because there’s a race to attract the millennials, the talented young creative class out there,” he says.
Trenary says they don’t want to live in the suburbs, but rather in a lively and growing Downtown, or at least be able to get there easily and have a good time. “When you think about the fun things to do here, we’re becoming a very walkable, a very attractive community,” he says. “Kids are moving here from Austin and Nashville, but a few years ago folks said that can’t happen. But it’s happening now. This is Memphis’ time and without a vibrant Downtown, we wouldn’t be successful doing that.”
The Chamber is the voice of business and, he says, “It’s our job to make sure we have an environment conducive to development.” On one level, it works to retain and recruit. “We want to keep what we have and also attract companies — and their jobs — to move to Memphis.”
It’s an operation that’s ready to go into action at the drop of a suggestion that somebody wants to come here — or leave.
“It’s our job to make sure everyone is aware of the circumstances,” he says. “The state, the county, the city, everyone that has a role in economic development was on board to make sure we were able to not only retain ServiceMaster but let them grow and contribute to Memphis. Same thing with St. Jude. We took extraordinary efforts in both of those to make sure those projects remained in Memphis. That included all levels and all players in economic development. That’s the role we play.”
Trenary describes how the Chamber plays the game, runs the business, and makes the music: “Economic development is a great team sport. You have Mayor Jim Strickland and Mayor Mark Luttrell, who are like co-CEOs. They’re really at the head of this. Then the Chamber is like the conductor of the orchestra. We bring everything together, get the parties to the table, make sure that everything that needs to be there is there and do everything we can to make sure we don’t lose one.”
The Chamber also gets involved in policy, pushing for favorable legislation and fighting what it sees as bad ideas.
“Think about deannexation,” Trenary says. “You may remember we were told the train had left the station last year and that it was a done deal. Had that happened, we would have had a devastating increase in taxes. We would have had public services go down in quality and something like that would have stifled development throughout Shelby County and especially Downtown.” The city and the Chamber pushed back and the proposed bill died, allowing time for further discussions and refinements.
The Chamber also has a legislative agenda that addresses tax issues (including favoring Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed gas tax that was passed), infrastructure, job creation, and support for relevant funding, such as that for the St. Jude expansion. “That’s an ongoing item in our legislative agenda that we have pushed on every year, looking for three-year funding on that. We’ve been very public about that as far as getting funding for the St. Jude expansion so we’ve had a direct role on that and lobbied very hard for it at the state and local level.”
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