Several years ago, a Memphis distribution company had a problem. Because of a nearby traffic signal, cars backed up in front of the company's drive, making it impossible for departing employees to turn left.
And while the employees might have been stuck, the company realized that it wasn't.
"This was a major corporation, and they were ready to go to DeSoto County," says Reid Dulberger, vice president over Memphis and Shelby County's economic development program. "It's the same everywhere: The little irritants become big irritants over time because no one is addressing it."
The former head of the Youngstown-Warren, Ohio, Regional Chamber of Commerce, Dulberger was recently hired to run MemphisED, one part of the four-pronged Memphis Fast Forward Initiative. A combined initiative from Memphis Tomorrow, city and county government, and the Memphis Regional Chamber, the $66 million Fast Forward plan aims to create 50,000 new jobs within five years.
Though the chamber already had a business-retention staff, MemphisED gives additional funding to retaining and growing businesses in the community. Though it may not be as exciting or headline-inducing as a major corporation relocating here, Dulberger says it gets more bang for the buck.
"It's less expensive to work with existing firms," he says. "You don't have to convince them about the value of your community. You're not traveling to distant cities. You're not producing expensive marketing materials."
What it lacks in cost it makes up in labor. The MemphisED staff plans to do 400 site visits with local companies this year, with at least 50 of those visits being to minority- and women-owned businesses. And one may not think a traffic light has anything to do with economic development, but Dulberger would disagree.
"The business owners are saying, we're here, we're employing people, we're paying taxes, and I can't get the littlest thing done," he says.
"To an adjoining community in another state, it's an attraction project. The company is promised the moon and the sun. All of a sudden, they're being shown a lot of love from another community. They feel like they're being neglected by their home community — that's a recipe for losing businesses."
In the case of the distribution company, once the chamber's retension staff became involved, the problem was corrected within a few days.
Fast Forward aims to create thousands of new jobs by focusing not just on businesses but on government efficiency, making the community one of the safest of its size and educating the local workforce.
"If this isn't a safe community, we aren't going to be creating 50,000 new jobs here. Or, if we do, the jobs will be here, but everyone will live someplace else," Dulberger says.
Fast Forward has five main goals, 15 strategies for achieving those goals, and 12 partnering organizations, making it truly a joint effort.
"Even the city/county efficiency piece plays a role. The cost of government translates into our local tax burden," Dulberger says. "To the extent that our local tax burden is high, it doesn't make it any easier to retain, grow, or attract jobs."
This isn't the area's first economic development plan, but it does represent a change. A study last year said that Memphis and Shelby County had one of the most underfunded economic development plans in the country.
When asked what is different about the current plan, Dulberger says simply, "It's actually being implemented."
The plan has both public and private funding behind it; the partners have already begun working on their individual components. The Musicians Resource Center is set to open in June. The Center for Emerging Entrepreneurial Development, an incubator for women- and minority-owned businesses in industries in which they are underrepresented, already has seven of its eight possible tenants.
"Getting a document together is not that difficult. If you have some money, you can hire a consultant, and you, too, can have a plan," Dulberger says.
And he says that some communities have done exactly that:
"I suppose that will make our life a little bit easier, because it will make our competition that much less effective."