International Paper is the least known of the three Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Memphis.
This is partly because IP is a relative newcomer (1986) that was founded somewhere else (Manhattan) and partly because IP chooses to keep a relatively low profile. FedEx is FedEx Forum and founder Fred Smith, AutoZone is AutoZone Park and founder Pitt Hyde, IP is some nice office buildings on Poplar Avenue and CEO John Faraci.
IP is in the news this week for seeking tax breaks to expand its local headquarters and prevent it from moving to Mississippi — a doubtful proposition at a glance, but who knows? Let the threats, the outrage at corporate welfare, the economic impact studies, and the cost-benefit analysis begin.
One thing IP should do is "adopt" Meeman Shelby Forest State Park or Overton Park or both of them. This should have been done a long time ago but it's not too late. By adopt, I don't mean ask for naming rights or permission to clear cut or manage a swath of forest. I mean become a corporate angel, and associate its name and give-back with a good cause and a place that could use some funds. This would benefit the company and the community.
Earlier this year I interviewed Faraci for a story in one of our sister publications, MBQ magazine. He was quick to accept the invitation, accomodating, and candid with his answers. One thing I asked him was to name his and IP's signature local cause. He said the National Civil Rights Museum. That puzzled me. I don't know the extent of IP's support, but IP, unlike Hyde and AutoZone, had nothing to do with the founding of the museum and is one of dozens of partners that include individuals, celebrities, corporations, Major League Baseball, and the NBA. I sometimes wonder who is helping whom. In any case, IP is lost in the crowd and brings no special expertise or story to the table.
What IP knows is trees and forest management. At the end of our interview, Faraci, who joined IP in 1974, gave me a nice coffee-table book called "A Permanent Island: The Conservation Legacy of International Paper." It is full of lovely color pictures of 27 of the forest holdings IP sold to various conservators, including Cumberland Forest and Dry Branch in Tennessee.
I suggested to an IP spokesman that the company do something with Meeman Shelby Forest, and he in turn suggested I write a letter to Faraci, which I did. That was the end of that, which was fine. Access and straight answers pretty much cover a CEO's obligations to the local media. But with IP in the news now, seeking a handout in the eyes of many people, I'll float the idea again.
Public parks need private dollars, as Overton Park and Shelby Farms have shown. To my eye, Overton Park is in pretty good hands with the Overton Park Conservancy. I'm sure it would welcome more partners, but Meeman Shelby Forest seems to me a better match for IP. Named for Memphis newspaperman and conservationist Edward Meeman, the park's 13,467 acres in northwest Shelby County include bottomland hardwood forests, two lakes, trails and roads, ball fields, a boat ramp, disc golf, cabins, and a swimming pool. Some of it is public hunting grounds. One winter, I could have survived on the ducks, deer, and squirrels my son killed up there. The park is also a favorite destination of cyclists and a future link to the Harahan Bridge bike and pedestrian crossing and potential Mississippi River bike trail.
Calling out corporations and wealthy individuals on their community involvement and philanthropy can be crass and it's tricky. Frauds and egomaniacs like Allen Stanford can throw other people's money around and make a big splash with sponsorships and donations that don't last while anonymous benefactors give away millions. FedEx, the Smiths, AutoZone and the Hydes get the balance of corporate marketing and personal modesty right and set the bar high. So do others, but to try to name them would be to leave someone out or overstate someone's influence.
IP, however, has now asked for greater scrutiny. It's just business. Everything is part of the picture, from the reported 2,300 employees to the capital investments to the requested 30-year tax break on new construction, to as-yet unspecified competing offers in other states to Faraci's $12,935,541 compensation. IP is not the company that moved its operations (but not its corporate headquarters) to Memphis 26 years ago when mayors Dick Hackett and Bill Morris courted IP and CEO (later U.S. Treasury Secretary) Paul O'Neill. It has sold forest holdings, acquired competitors, adjusted to businesses that don't use as much paper, and on any given day is probably more interested in what goes on in the hinterlands of India and Russia than Memphis.
But let's assume its corporate leadership is as community-spirited as the next person, that employees' families have been raised in Greater Memphis, ties have been established, and that Tennessee with no personal state income tax offers some advantages over Mississippi, financial and otherwise. IP could improve its image and its community ties with a signature pet project. Meeman Shelby Forest would be a match.