Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mitsubishi’s Valentine

Adversaries in Memphis and Nashville unite around new jobs.

Posted By on Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 11:23 AM

This one was all about the television cameras — all eight of them.

The announcement on Valentine's Day that Mitsubishi Electric will build a $200 million plant in Memphis to employ 275 people was welcome, inspirational, giddy, and timely.

Memphis and Shelby County need a good story to tell. For more than a year, we've been making national news for teen pregnancies, foreclosures, a failed consolidation vote, Ernest Withers working for the FBI, the looming fight over two public school systems, and an unfortunate reference to Nazis.

The good news about the economy brought together Governor Bill Haslam, former senator Howard Baker, Mayors A C Wharton and Mark Luttrell, Democratic congressman Steve Cohen, and Republican state senator Mark Norris as well as basketball star Rudy Gay, who got the first shot at the microphone.

The lights went dim, and the Peabody Skyway went dark. There was a backdrop of red curtains in the shape of Mitsubishi's logo. Exactly what the giant Japanese conglomerate plans to make in Memphis had been kept secret until Monday. Would a subcompact Mitsubishi Motors electric car be unveiled behind the curtain?

No, it would not. Mitsubishi Electric Power Products makes 400-ton power transformers the size of box cars. Unlike Middle Tennessee and north Mississippi, Memphis is still not in the Southern states car-production game. But Mitsubishi Electric's 275 jobs, combined with the recent announcement that Electrolux is bringing 1,250 jobs from Montreal to Memphis, gives us a half-billion dollars in new investment and two big names to brag about.

Things learned this week about Mitsubishi Electric: 100,000 employees in 30 countries, including 3,000 in North America; annual sales of $30 billion; U.S. product lines include elevators and escalators, solar modules, computer memory chips, and 92-inch 3-D televisions; title sponsor of a Champions Tour golf tournament in Hawaii; the name Mitsubishi combines two words that mean "three" and "water caltrop," which is reflected in the logo.

Maybe something got lost in translation on that last part.

Once again, though, the picture of unity and progress and new jobs was the main thing. How excited was Mayor Wharton? On Monday afternoon, he sent out an e-mail "to all my sweethearts across Memphis — including you!" about the good news.

It was sort of icky but excusable under the circumstances. Three days earlier, the mayor had been crosswise with Haslam and Norris over the swift passage of the Norris-sponsored bill setting the terms of a possible merger of the school system. Their differences are major and a long way from being resolved.

Wharton wasn't sending out any Valentines to Haslam and Norris on that one. At a press conference on Friday afternoon, he sounded more like the fired-up captain of an underdog team than a law professor or honest broker of compromise. He is officially no longer neutral.

That goes for the referendum: "I'm for the people voting, I'm for the referendum," and, with a little prodding, for his own sentiments: "I'm going to vote yes."

But the unflappable mayor also struck a note of conciliation aimed at the governor with whom he reportedly speaks daily.

"In all things social, we can be as separate as the fingers on the hand," he said. "But in things economic we remain one, as a fist. Now, on things economic, to the advantage of the state and the city, I'm going to work with the governor just like that."

When was the last time you heard anyone in Memphis quoting Booker T. Washington? This was a rough translation of the takeaway line from Washington's speech on race relations to the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895: "In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."

In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court took those words to heart in the case of Plessy versus Ferguson. The result was more than half a century of legally sanctioned "separate but equal" railroad cars, schools, and public facilities.

There is a separate-but-equal issue in the discussion of special school districts and municipal school districts. But, for a day at least, that story took a backseat to some good news. Memphis, Shelby County, Nashville, Republicans, and Democrats were one as the hand in something essential to their mutual progress.

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