The Politics (and Business) of Regionalism 

An up-for-grabs Toyota plant could be Memphis' NFL.

Remember the name: Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce. Regional as in regionalism.

Regionalism was the strategy adopted by the chamber when it changed its name from the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce.

And regionalism is the reason the chamber and Memphis city and county officials and business leaders should be going all out, hold-nothing-back, to help nearby Marion Arkansas, 10 miles from Memphis, get Toyota’s latest auto plant.

A Toyota plant is the business equivalent of an NFL franchise. For Memphis to politely remain quiet and step aside while Governor Phil Bredesen and the powers that be in Nashville and Chattanooga try to steer Toyota to Chattanooga — 300 miles from Memphis — is simply ridiculous.

Memphis has been getting whipsawed by Mississippi and Arkansas for years. Those states and their bedroom suburbs attract Memphis residents, teachers, professionals, buildings, and businesses with an above-board campaign touting supposedly lower taxes and bigger incentives, and a whisper campaign driven by fears of race and crime.

Granted that Memphis has shot itself in the leg with a rash of political corruption indictments and “leadership” from Mayor Willie Herenton, who has all but invited unhappy Memphians to move away. That’s no reason to stand by while Chattanooga and Nashville swing for the fences. Like the cliché says, this is the first day of the rest of our lives.

Toyota, now the world’s biggest automaker, would be a huge addition, as Commercial Appeal reporter Amos Maki wrote this week. As he said, Toyota’s billion-dollar project would “generate millions of dollars in investments and tax revenue for Memphis.”

The Mid-South is the epicenter of “the new Detroit,” as New York Times reporter Michelin Maynard has written. Kentucky, Alabama, Middle Tennessee, and Mississippi have landed huge plants from General Motors, Mercedes, Nissan, and others. Drive south 180 miles from Memphis on Interstate 55 and you will see the sprawling Nissan plant in Madison, Mississippi, just north of Jackson. That’s an economic magnet and industrial powerhouse that runs 365 days a year and pays good wages to thousands of ordinary people, not a handful of professional athletes.

A Marion plant would not only benefit Memphis, it would benefit Tennessee, because thousands of Tennesseans would work there and live in and around Memphis, just as thousands of DeSoto County and Crittenden County residents now work in Memphis.

By the same token, putting a plant in Chattanooga, a border city like Memphis, would benefit Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina as well as Tennessee. That’s the nature of regionalism.

It sounds warm and fuzzy, but regionalism has its practical limits. Exhibit A is Tunica, which has its own marketing operations apart from the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. The fact is, Mississippi’s gain has been Memphis’ loss when it comes to entertainment venues and over $300 million, and perhaps as much as $500 million, a year in spending on gambling and Tunica hotels.

Lay down for Chattanooga? Hell no. Let the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce live up to its name.

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