Issues Needing Answers 

A fair degree of public attention has been fixed of late on the factors that might incline businesses and industries to locate in Memphis and Shelby County. The idea being to assure mutual prosperity, theirs and ours. Recent circumstances presented a variety of different vantage points from which to see the problem.

There was the latest flare-up of controversy over Forrest Park, site of the grave of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest and an equestrian statue dedicated to his memory. There are distinguished and reasonable people on both sides of the argument. One side, characterized by the late novelist and Civil War chronicler Shelby Foote, argues that Forrest was a military commander of unusual valor, talent, and scope whose exploits entitle him to historical recognition, whatever his personal shortcomings. To Forrest's detractors, who include several political and civic figures, those "shortcomings," which included slave-trading, the co-founding of the Ku Klux Klan, and possible implication in a massacre, are antithetical to the aspirations of a 21st-century community. Paul Morris, head of the Downtown Memphis Commission, offered his opinion this week that the Forrest issue itself is a drag on corporate recruitment.

Then there was the up-or-down vote on the Shelby County Commission regarding a proposed wage-theft ordinance. As formulated and amended, the proposal would have established oversight and penalties, at least in the unincorporated areas of the county, for the problem of employers who deprive their employees of earned and/or promised wages, who decline to pay overtime, or who otherwise renege on obligations to members of their workforce. Local business organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce, campaigned against the ordinance, and were able to defeat it, offering the premise that such an ordinance would be an undue "burden" on business and private enterprise and thus a disincentive to development. Members of the clergy, labor representatives, and workers themselves maintained just as insistently that the absence of such workplace protection is not only unjust but a lingering cloud over the economy and its prospects.

There was also, at the instigation of Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz, a public information session this week in the county building about the nature of PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) arrangements to induce businesses and industries to locate or expand here. Ritz was a prime mover in the creation of the EDGE board (Economic Development Growth Engine), which united all such corporate and industrial matters, city and county, under one head. But the commission chairman has also been forthright about his lack of confidence in the way that PILOTs and other incentives are calculated and applied, so as to balance the revenue interests of local government with the needs of the commercial beneficiaries.

None of these issues are clear-cut in the assignment of pluses and minuses to this or that side of the argument. All of them have to do with evolving points of view which, increasingly, are in contrast to the precepts and conventional wisdom of past practices. And they all require fair-mindedness and a willingness to compromise on the part of those who presume to shape our larger community for the future.


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