Taking Off 

If economic growth in Shelby County were an airplane, says Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce president and CEO John Moore, the chamber would be the cockpit. "That's where the controls are," he explains. "That's where you fly the plane."

It's a metaphor one might expect from a former Northwest Airlines executive and the man taking the chamber in a new direction.

But if the chamber is the cockpit, the city and county are now perhaps the ground crew, testing the equipment, gassing the engine, and loading the cargo.

During last week's City Council economic-development committee, members preliminarily approved giving the chamber $175,000 as part of an agreement to stimulate economic growth in the region. The contract, which includes matching funds from the county, specifies as its goals the creation of 6,000 new jobs in Shelby County and $750 million in private-sector capital investment. It also says that the chamber will focus on growing the biotech, music, film, and manufacturing industries in the area.

At a spry, 168 years old, the chamber's job is to "sell" Memphis but it also serves as a resource in a day-to-day capacity.

"Everything we do has to do with this community," says Moore. "The kinds of calls and requests we get ... range from 'Where can I get married?' to 'What is the safest hotel in Memphis?'"

Or a business looking at a new location might ask for the daily traffic count at a nearby intersection, the median and average income in adjacent zip codes, or a 5-year income-migration trend for the area.

In the past, the chamber's funding -- up to $650,000 from both the city and the county -- was given as a grant. For the past two years, however, the chamber has not received any money from local government.

But members of the City Council seemed to welcome the idea of a contract. Chairperson TaJuan Stout Mitchell calls it "long overdue."

"This agreement spells out what is expected. For too long, we've given money to the chamber, and there was no clear direction about what we were getting back," she says.

But the council would have liked even more specifics from the chamber.

"I'd like to know what I can expect Memphis to receive," says Mitchell. "Out of 6,000 new jobs, I don't want 100 to be in Memphis and 5,900 in Shelby County outside of Memphis."

Turbulence aside, the groups seem to want a closer relationship. Moore says there was not enough inclusiveness and partnership under the old model, and members of the council have asked to be included in meetings with representatives from prospective companies.

"The successful economic-development models that I've seen around the country are developed on very strong public- and private-sector partnerships," says Moore. "You can't expect one organization to do it all. The chamber can't fix crime. The chamber can't make improvements to the education system, but we can be a facilitator. ... In the end, it's all about growing the economy."

"You can't sit still because it's a highly competitive world," says Moore.

So maybe this is simply a first step, like passengers boarding or the plane taxiing to the runway. The contract only spans one year, and the chamber is working on a broader initiative for the future.

But I can't help thinking about commercial flights. If you're a passenger, you put your faith in the fact that you're going to get off the ground, you're going to soar at 10,000 feet, you're going to get a soda and some pretzels, and then you're going to land safely.

And I think this contract gives us a bit more faith.

"None of this was done in a vacuum," says Moore. "This is just about putting some premium in the tank so we can run a little bit faster."

In which case, you may want to make sure your seats are in the upright position, your tray tables fastened, and that your seatbelt is snug and low on your waist.

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