Thursday, October 18, 2007

'Memphis Fast Forward' political ties, accountability questioned

Commercial Appeal [link]
By Alex Doniach (Contact)

A debate among County Commissioners erupted Wednesday about whether to put $1 million in county funds toward an economic development campaign that has pledged to produce thousands of new jobs and millions in new tax revenue.

The development plan, one piece of the economic growth strategy "Memphis Fast Forward," will attempt to create 49,395 jobs by 2011.

The Memphis Fast Forward initiative is spearheaded by Memphis Tomorrow, Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton and the Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

But on Wednesday, some commissioners said they weren't confident how the funds would be spent.

They also expressed concerns about using taxpayer dollars for a plan that would give money to MPACT Memphis, a nonprofit that Commissioner Henri Brooks said has direct ties to New Path, a separate organization that endorses political candidates.

Brooks said New Path co-founder Darrell Cobbins is a former president of MPACT Memphis. He currently sits on the board of advisers.

"MPACT has a direct relationship with New Path; New Path endorses candidates," Brooks said. "We are not going to give money to political organizations."

Commissioner Sidney Chism agreed that the commission should stay clear of any efforts connected to New Path.

"All I want to do is make sure that we keep politics out of a funding effort that we've got something to do with," Chism said.

The economic development plan is broken down into 15 strategies that rely on the participation of local organizations, such as the Mid-South Minority Business Council, the Memphis Regional Chamber and MPACT Memphis, to create jobs and attract people to Memphis.

The City Council and state government have already pledged $1.5 million each. The private sector has given about $5 million.

Memphis Tomorrow president Blair Taylor reassured commissioners Wednesday that MPACT Memphis is a nonprofit that, by federal law, is not allowed to endorse political candidates.

She also said the commission's funds could be left out of MPACT Memphis' piece of the project.

And Commissioner Mike Carpenter reminded the commission that New Path is a separate organization that is not listed on the plan.

"Let's not get into, in this process, a lot of cherry-picking about what things get funded and what things don't," Carpenter said. "We've got to move this community forward and we've got to move it in a big way and in a fast way."

But there were other concerns about the plan. Commissioner Steve Mulroy found little support in a motion to keep county dollars away from the controversial Beale Street Landing project, which is included in the plan.

Brooks and Commissioner Wyatt Bunker said they were still unclear about how the county's $1 million would be used.

In light of the concerns, Chairman David Lillard delayed the vote until the full commission meets Monday.

Editor's note: The following extract was taken from page 22 of MEMPHISED: Memphis Area Economic Development Plan, prepared by Market Street Services on behalf of the Memphis Fast Forward. This is the program that Shelby County is being asked to help fund. Click to see the entire page.

Click here to download our scan of the entire, 40-page Memphis Area Redevelopment Plan. Warning: 6 MB PDF file, requires Adobe Reader version 6 or later. (7 MB copy for Reader version 5 here.)

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