The relationship between the Greater Memphis Chamber and local government is akin to the reply from the elderly wife who was asked the secret to her long marriage:  “Can’t live with him.  Can’t live without him.”

Over the past 30 years, the Chamber has often been a mere echo of the city and county mayors.  Occasionally, it would vow to have more independence and step out front on a volatile issue, notably increases in taxes or creation of a new tax, but that was normally followed by cuts in public funding from piqued elected officials.  Because of it, Chamber leaders learned to walk softly and carry a small stick.   

It all began in the early 1970s when the Chamber went bankrupt and essentially vanished from the local scene. The lesson of depending on memberships to fund operations was clear, and government funding became a quick and dependable fix.

Little more than a year ago, the Chamber’s new Chairman’s Circle – a supercharged group of super funders – laid out an agenda of “moon missions,” but the biggest mission of all was cutting off funding from Memphis and Shelby County Governments and plunging headlong into setting and influencing government priorities and challenging the public sector – and the private sector as well – to act more boldly, to refuse to accept “it’s good enough for Memphis” as an answer, and to force action, even if it could be embarrassing to politicians. 

To punctuate the shift in direction and attitude, the Chamber even set out to create its own political action committee (PAC) to encourage people to run for office and to reward elected officials who support the Chamber’s agenda of change.   As a result, it’s not possible to think of a time since Edmund Orgill was mayor of Memphis in the when the Chamber flexed more muscle and influence than now.

In retrospect, some of the Chamber’s finest moments were when it was a counterbalance to prevailing political thinking, such as the 2001 Memphis Region Sourcebook which laid out priorities for “creating a strategic regional future,” but the fact remains that our region has languished at the bottom of the rankings for economic vitality for two decades. Programs to make Memphis more competitive have reliably been about tweaking and repackaging existing programs or building public support for the about $1 billion in tax abatements for big business in the past decade.  

What’s not been done is to attack Memphis’s deeply rooted structural problems, and that’s one of the major changes in today’s Chamber.  Its new president Phil Trenary, who appears to be the right person at the right time, is talking about poverty, the importance of quality of place, the impact of stronger neighborhoods, and creation of a thicker middle class.

It’s an audacious conversation in the face of Memphis’s harsh realities.  Low-wage jobs have dominated the last 15 years of the regional economy, and median household incomes peaked in 1999.  Most disturbing of all, today’s median household income in Memphis is less than a living wage for one adult and one child, and the bottom 20 percent of incomes is less than $13,522, and salaries went down by $1,231 in the most recent reporting period. 

To complicate its work, the Chamber is getting more involved at a time when top-down solutions are treated with suspicion, when the talented workers that Memphis desperately needs often feel that economic development policies aren’t about them but blue-collar workers, and when overt business community leadership is often perceived negatively in political public circles.

Despite this, the Chairman’s Circle announced its moon missions: high school workers prepared to work in advanced manufacturing diesel mechanics, welding, or other high-demand trades; connecting Mid-South green spaces and retaining talent, adding 1,000 entrepreneurs in 10 years, high quality education for children from birth to pre-K, and a comprehensive growth plan for the region. 

Progress is being made, but moon missions don’t happen overnight.  By the time a U.S. moon mission was successful, there had already been a dozen failures.  As the Chamber tackles its missions, there’s little question that there will be failures along the way.  Serious problems like the region’s high rate of poverty, too many jobs that don’t pay a living wage, and too few young professionals with college degrees require nothing as much as time and patience.

Nashville has long been proof of the benefits that come from an active and engaged business community.  As that city has shown, with it, the sky – if not the moon – is the limit.

Previously published as Memphis magazine’s City Journal column.