Bootstrappers unite! We need to pave the way for more entrepreneurs and homegrown businesses to succeed in Memphis. Of course, big developers and outside companies create lots of jobs and build strong communities, so we should continue to use incentives to help them when otherwise the project wouldn’t happen. But if we turn our focus to the small guys we can make our local economy much more robust at a fraction of the cost.
City and county government must work together to empower individuals and small companies to make our community stronger. We have to change the way we grant incentives and how agencies interpret and enforce regulations. Thanks to the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team and agency officials, some of this work is already happening, but we need broad support from both city and county government to make it happen soon.
Most of the chatter we hear about entrepreneurs is focused on the emerging tech, logistics and biomedical sector. This is fine and crucial to our city’s growth, but we cannot neglect traditional small business. We have to give attention to the immigrant starting a landscaping business or an ice cream shop; the second generation family business owner scaling up operations; the artist with a vision to revitalize a dormant neighborhood with a gallery and gathering space.
The first thing we have to do is create a comprehensive website to help people navigate our the bureaucracy. The city, county, library and Chamber have all made attempts at this but none have succeeded in pulling everything together like this one in NYC. Especially if replicated in Spanish and other languages, a website clearly presenting city, county and private resources, rules and solutions would go a long way in helping strengthen entrepreneurialism in our city.
We should make incentives more accessible to small businesses and entrepreneurs. They create jobs and improve communities, and are sometimes willing to invest in neighborhoods bigger companies and developers would not. They have the same obligations as any other developer; they have to fix sidewalks, install utility services and pay taxes. Let’s even the playing field so they too can access incentives, while tightening oversight of all companies that receive them.
Agency rules and regulations are important for public safety, but should be used to help rather than hinder development. Agency heads should be empowered and incentivized to find solutions when their staff identifies problems. Big developers have the financial strength to pay lawyers, specialists and lobbyists to deal with potential issues for their projects on the front end, and the resources to survive months in limbo when something unexpected occurs. The same kinds of issues could put stop a bootstrapper or put her project on indefinite delay. The solution is transparency, consistency and policy that makes economic development second only to public safety as determining factors for agency approval.
We should institute lighter regulation is some parts of the county. Especially in areas where older, abandoned buildings dominate, it can be difficult to revitalize when a willing developer is faced with trying to make something built in the 20’s conform to modern regulations. The paradox is that these are the areas in most need of help. Often they are blighted areas where crime and economic deterioration feed of each other. These areas already have city and county infrastructure in place, so really just need private sector investment to bring them back to life. We have to enable that investment by relaxing certain regulations and providing workarounds for others.
These types of ideas are being executed to great success in other cities across the country. It’s time for Shelby County to join the conversation and help our own citizens propel us into the new economy.