The members of the Shelby County Commission held an instructive and somewhat unexpected debate on Monday concerning the lengths to which local governmental bodies are willing to go to attract jobs and new industry to the Memphis-Shelby County area.
On the agenda was the kind of item that is usually routine — a resolution to approve the county commission's end of a bargain made by county and city administrations with Electrolux Home Products, the Swedish-based company that has chosen Memphis' Pidgeon Industrial Park as the site of a new 700,000-square-foot plant. The company, which makes refrigerators and washing machines, is relocating an existing plant from t L’Assomption, Quebec, whose local authorities and media have been expressing anguish even as our local equivalents have been rejoicing.
At issue is the matter of some 1,200 possible new jobs, as well as what was reported to be a $190 million investment. In a job-poor market and a suffering economy, that was nothing to sneeze at. The last thing that Tom Vining — the Electrolux executive who was in town to make the sale — expected to get was some sales resistance during this last formality before the deal became final.
And yet he got some. Commissioner Henri Brooks, a Democrat, grilled the Electrolux spokesman on the depth of his company's commitment to Title VI, the equal-employment provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. With a regretful air, Wyatt Bunker, a Republican, treated Vining to a lecture of the sanctity of the free market, having pondered the fact that Electrolux was requiring no less than $20 million from county government — to go with another $20 million from the city and $100 million from the state. Business should not be subsidized to such a degree, Bunker declared, announcing that he was withholding his approval.
Then Walter Bailey, a Democrat, got to doing the arithmetic of the transaction out loud. Of the alleged $190 million investment, only some $50 million was being committed by the company itself, right? Well, yes, acknowledged Vining and Chamber of Commerce spokesperson Mark Herbison, but the investment implicit in the number of jobs provided plus the annual operating expenses paid by Electrolux would ultimately dwarf the local expenditures.
Other commissioners got in the act. Democrat Steve Mulroy said that he also had concerns for society's less fortunate, whose subsidies from government sources were drying up. And Republican Heidi Shafer said that she, like Bunker, was a free-market purist. But both, along with other members of the commission, said they had concluded that the deal was too good for Memphis and Shelby County to turn down.
So in the end the deal was made, with only Bunker voting no (Bailey had left the premises after saying he could not vote for the arrangement). We trust that everything works out well for all parties — including some of those economically disadvantaged potential workers whose plight had been addressed during the debate. We hope, too, that Vining and other Electrolux executives were not offended by being addressed so frankly.
In our view, that's the kind of conversation that ought to be had every time an arrangement like this is made. A little straight talk never hurt anyone.