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Instacart delivers more than just groceries - hiring over 100 virtual shoppers in the area

Consumer habits are changing fast. As life gets busier and busier, people often look to technology to make things easier.

This has making the days of driving store to store, walking aisle to aisle, a thing of the past. Today, all one needs to knock out weekend errands are a computer, or smartphone, a wi-fi connection – oh, and a shopping list.

Kroger E-Commerce Manager Jeff Evans believes “everybody is looking for a way to get a little of their time back.”

The Instacart App, which made its Memphis debut on Aug. 8, is hard-coded to refund time. The service will allow customers to purchase groceries, toiletries, over-the-counter medication, pet supplies - even prepared meals – and have them delivered to their front door.

Instacart isn’t the first virtual shopper in Memphis. However, they fill orders at a range of retailers like Whole Foods Market, Costco, CVS, Petco and Kroger. Other services are linked to a single retailer – like Kroger or Walmart, for example.

The online service also guarantees prompt deliveries. Often, in as little as an hour.  

“Over the past year we’ve seen incredible demand in the Memphis area,” said Nick Friedrich, Instacart general manager.

Instacart’s local service area will cover most of Shelby County. With 313,000 households in 31 ZIP codes, there is a potential market for the service.

The San Francisco-based startup will also have an impact on the local workforce. It plans to hire more than 100 shoppers in the Memphis-area.

Shoppers will be paid by the order. Tips increase their income – provided the customer is satisfied.

"The wage includes a per item commission and a per order commission on each delivery completed, so wages vary by shopper. The more efficient shoppers tend to make a little bit more," Friedrich said.

Like rideshare giant Uber, Instacart is an adherent to the “gig” economy.

This model relies on contractors to fill most of its workforce. For the workers, it’s a mixed bag. For some, it’s a positive – flexible hours, less stress.

For others, there’s a downside. Contract workers are generally paid by the gig, which can work out to less than minimum wage. The work can be inconsistent. They don’t receive benefits.

Instacart has tried blunt some of the negative effects the business model has on contract workers.

"We do have guaranteed minimums in each new market so new shoppers can feel confident in their wages as they get up to speed. These minimums ensure that shopper wages in Memphis are above minimum wage," according to Friedrich.

Lately, companies have sought to downsize the model to a degree. A percentage of contract workers are being hired on full-time or part-time by “gig” employers.

The shopping service is following suit. They began hiring regular employees in 2015. Now, 20 percent of their shoppers fit that category.

While the “gig” economy stresses flexibility over the traditional employment package, the looming specter of automation is loyal to neither.

While unions like SEIU and minimum-wage workers have been focusing on a baseline of $15 per hour, online retailer Amazon has been investing in new technology. A drone that will deliver an order with a soft landing on your front lawn is in the works. So is its push into retail grocery with the recent purchase of Whole Foods Market.

But what should send shivers down the spines of labor organizers and gig jobbers is “Amazon Go. Billed as the first grocer without cashiers, its further concern for increasing worker obsolescence as technology advances.

While the end game is uncertain, but Jeff Evans of Kroger is right. Through technology, people are potentially about to have a lot more time on their hands.

Crosstown High School driving to be a 21st century model

When the doors open on what will likely be a hot, summer day in Memphis, Crosstown High ninth-graders won’t be walking into a “traditional” high school.

Being billed as “high school for the 21st century,” the new charter school in Midtown will kick off its inaugural class next year. In August 2018, 125 ninth-graders will comprise the incoming students. The school will eventually serve 500 youth, grades 9-12.

Through an innovative curriculum, Crosstown High hopes to prepare students for what lies ahead. Students will receive personalized learning plans, as well as project-based educational opportunities.

The school is the united vision parents, students, educators and stakeholders in the community.

Ginger Spickler, an early organizer and visionary for Crosstown High, spearheaded a team of volunteers starting in 2015 - talking to hundreds of Memphians - parents, educators, employers, and especially students - about what young people need out of high school today.

“I was lucky enough to convince an incredibly dedicated and talented group of community volunteers to participate in a deep community engagement process. This is truly a community-generated vision for how students should be learning in the 21st century,” said Spickler,

Over the next year, their involvement will continue as more details about the school emerge. As the first day of school draws near, member of the Board of Directors and staff plan to continue consulting with the community about what is needed in an innovative new high school.

Spickler says they will continue to listen deeply to the community, as well as research the best practice of schools throughout the country, who are already leading the way toward more student-centered learning.

“We'll also be working to hire a staff that is incredibly mission-aligned. And, of course, we'll be reaching out into the community to share this vision of a different kind of high school experience to Memphis families. We are aiming for a uniquely diverse student body and will be working hard to make sure our reach is broad,” said Spickler.

Crosstown High will be in proximity to an active ecosystem of entrepreneurship and leadership. Students will have the opportunity to learn from a range of mentors.

The approach of engaging students in real-life work necessitates a change in the expectation in the teachers they plan to hire and the partnerships they form.

Local youth development organizations - BRIDGES, Cloud 901 and story booth – stand up as inspiration to form curriculum and culture.

A look the recent success of the Maxine Smith STEAM Academy is also fueling demand for schools like Crosstown High. A smaller student-body equals smaller class sizes. Thus, more one-on-one learning opportunities are available.

Like STEAM, there will also be an innovative curriculum. It will be centered around project-based learning. As the school was being conceptualized, the thoughts of students and teachers throughout the school system were gauged. Surveys were conducted. Soon, a picture began to take shape.

Students wanted to see real-world connections to the curriculum. They want to apply what they learn; to put their knowledge to work for the good of the community.

 “The location of Crosstown affords us an opportunity to weave challenging, real-life opportunities into the daily lives of our students.  Through a curriculum that intertwines content across traditional subjects and focuses on substantial and important student-led projects we believe that we can connect at a high level with our students.  Additionally, we believe that our students can make substantial contributions to our community,” said Chris Terrill, executive director of Crosstown High.

To achieve this, the school will partner with fellow tenants of the Crosstown Concourse. For instance, a student could cover writing and science bases through a wellness campaign for Church Health.

“Crosstown was designed to be a vertical urban village.  A great school is an exceedingly important component of any healthy community. Therefore, Crosstown makes sense from a community standpoint,” said Terrill.

The school will benefit from partnerships they are developing in the building. With almost 3000 people living or working in the Concourse, opportunities for partnerships and internships are endless.

Each tenant understands the Crosstown mantra of "Better together" and is ready and willing to carry that mission into their interactions with the students.

Along with the curriculum there will be a personalized learning plan for each student. This will help them develop a path to understanding core concepts in math, science and English that suits their individual needs.

“In a typical school environment a textbook defines the bulk of content and students proceed at whatever pace the teacher or district has set.  Very little attention is given to the idea that students learn at different paces and come in with different skill sets,” said Terrill.

In a personalized, competency based model, students progress - with guidance - at their own pace and master content before moving on.

“Understanding content is important, but in a personalized plan, students are given options to show that they have mastered the key concepts,” said Terrill.

The students will also learn in the fashion they are best geared toward. It could be through teacher instruction, online learning or peer tutoring.

Progress will be tracked through advisors and technology.

There will also be two-week elective courses, generally in areas of particular interest for the student. These brief stints will allow kids to pursue areas of passion - like art, music or sports, for example.

Crosstown High will also meet the same requirements as other public schools. English, math, science and social studies will comprise the core curriculum.

As a charter school, they are required by law to assess students with the same state tests that traditional public schools administer. 

However, throughout Terrill’s career, he says his approach has been low key in terms of testing.  He believes in building a curriculum that is rich and relevant to students, implement that curriculum, and then students are naturally prepared to do well. 

“We will not be a school that crams content in the weeks leading up to the test.  We will not hype the test.  Our students will do well because we have authentically prepared them for excellence in life,” said Terrill.

The concept of Crosstown High was driven, partly, as the result of a grant application. A group of Memphians, led by Spickler, organized to design an “educational experience.” The goal of the project was to create “agile and flexible learners” for a future growing continuously more fluid. Five winners would receive $10 million each to realize their project.

“The vision for Crosstown High came about through the process of applying for a large grant from the XQ Super School Project, an X Prize-type design contest that challenged us to rethink high school for the next generation of students,” said Spickler.

After being named a finalist, they didn't make the cut in 2016. A vision for Crosstown High came out in the wash, though.

A diverse, wide-ranging student body that is reflective of the community will be sought. Students will be culled from throughout Memphis. No school will be the recipient of a lopsided exodus as names are drawn.

The application process will begin in September. Students will be prioritized via lottery system. Prospective students will be notified about enrollment for the 2018-19 year in the months ahead.

Healthier Tennessee Neighborhoods taps Memphis for new health and wellness pilot program

With public health issues, like Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, reaching all-time highs in Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam has introduced Healthier Tennessee Neighborhoods, an urban health program.

As the pilot city, Memphis will be the first metropolitan area to take part. The initiative is part of the Governor’s Foundation for Health and Wellness, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Tennesseans lead healthier lives.

A quick look at some of the state’s basic health statistics reveals why. The obesity rate has risen to 33 percent. People considered overweight come in at the same figure. Meanwhile, one in four adults smoke. Following in their steps, one in five high school students are taking up the habit.

The Foundation encourages Tennesseans to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Part of that is through physical activity, with 30 minutes a day, five days a week as the benchmark. Additionally, it provides advice on a more nutritious diet and portion control. Tobacco use, of course, is discouraged.

Research shows that support is vital to people adopting and maintaining a healthier lifestyle – for individuals and the community.

Up until now, only smaller towns in the state have taken part.  The Healthier Tennessee Communities initiative is geared towards those municipalities.

“HTC was launched in 2015, with nine pilot communities across the state that formed local leadership committees and mobilized citizen participation to increase physical activity, improve nutrition, and reduce tobacco use by measurable amounts in their towns and counties. Today, HTC is in 97 communities across the state,” said Richard Johnson, CEO, Governor's Foundation for Health & Wellness.

The move to metropolitan areas is the next phase. The focus will be on resident-led health movements in urban neighborhoods.

Neighborhood Wellness Councils will be formed and led by a chairperson dubbed the wellness champion. kThrough regular meetings, the council will develop and put into practice a Neighborhood Wellness Plan that will encourage a healthier lifestyle.

“We are in the process of conducting focus groups around the city, getting feedback from residents about what kinds of healthy lifestyle initiatives they would like to see in their neighborhoods and how we can make HTN most impactful for them,” Regional Director for Healthier Tennessee Neighborhoods, Kerri Campbell, said.

Once those goals are achieved, the neighborhood will receive a Healthier Tennessee Neighborhood designation from the Governor’s Foundation. They will also receive public recognition from state and local officials.

“Our work is guided by the knowledge that healthier communities attract more employers and have improved employee performance; have lower incidences of chronic health conditions and reduced healthcare costs; and see improved academic performance and higher attendance rates in schools,” said Johnson.

Memphis - like a lot of communities in the state - has not fared well in health outcomes. Chronic diseases persist: diabetes, hypertension, obesity.

“We hope it’s a pathway over the long term to improve the culture of health in the city – one neighborhood at a time,” said Johnson.

Memphis is viewed as fertile ground for this type of program. People have a strong sense of belonging to their neighborhood. This makes it more likely for them to take part. Going neighborhood by neighborhood isn’t too far afield from introducing a program to a small community, either.

“It was partly that we had always, since we began the work four years ago, known that we wanted to take this approach in metropolitan areas. When FedEx stepped forward and said they would like to be a funding partner for an initiative that’s focused on Memphis, rather than the entire state, it gave us the greenlight to go ahead and do this first in Memphis,” added Johnson.

With funding clinched, Campbell was hired as Regional Director. FedEx committed $150,000 over the next three years. Any additional funding will come from the Foundation through public and private donations.

The last few months, Campbell has been out in the community. She has talked to stakeholders about the initiative. Some have backgrounds in community development, public health and philanthropy. The outreach will help with the selection of pilot neighborhoods. It will also help better serve their needs.

“I am conducting these focus groups in partnership with Emily Trenholm, Community Engagement Manager at High Ground News, and together we are making sure that we have the right people at the table to give us the feedback we need to develop and implement a successful pilot,” said Campbell.

Community partners for the focus groups include Binghampton CDC, Crosstown CDC, Klondike Smokey City CDC, Vollintine Evergreen Community Association, and The Works.

Once the pilot phase is completed, more neighborhoods will be approached.

“We hope to see a majority of neighborhoods in Memphis become involved and see them accomplish their measurable goals,” said Johnson.

A new Community LIFT Empowerment Fund looks to lift up small, neighborhood projects

Community LIFT has started an Empowerment Fund to drive neighborhood-based projects. The small-grant endowment will invest up to $2,500 per endeavor.

The community development corporation’s fund will provide support and financial assistance to individuals, residents or small grassroots organizations. The projects, meanwhile, will fall in the categories of people-based, economics, grassroots organizing and physical space – like a pocket park.

You can find an example of one of these small, public spaces near Danny Thomas and Crump.  It was completed a few months back. Built by the employees at ServiceMaster, the work was done in a day.

The park sits in front of the Greater White Stone Missionary Baptist Church at 917 S Wellington St.  With a mural painted on the side of an adjacent abandoned building, it’s easy to spot.

When LIFT was researching projects, short timeframes, little sweat equity and a need of few supplies were prerequisites. A pocket park is a good example of a project that meets those criteria.

Community health fairs, pop-up shops, or designating a street or block as a historic preservation site, are examples of the other three categories, respectively.

“These are the types of projects people are taking on in their communities but may not have the financial assistance needed and are spending money out of their pocket,” said Nefertiti Orrin, Grants Director for Community LIFT.

The funding intermediary for local CDCs hopes the fund will also help connect people with other resources. Many projects require more than the fund’s limit. A partnership with ioby has helped many bridge financial shortfalls. The online crowdfunding platform has funded 203 projects since 2014.

“We want people to think about how they can leverage funds to be awarded from Community LIFT to secure more funding – say you have a $4,000 project – how can you raise the difference for your project,” said Orrin.

LIFT’s Empowerment fund will work with their CDC Capacity Fund. The latter promotes the expansion of community development corporations’ organizational capacity. After all, a neighborhood organization is only effective if it receives participation from the community it serves.

“At the core of our work, we hope to advance Memphis by securing funding and connections and networks that help to empower residents and grow community development corporations (CDCs),” said Orrin. “CDCs work tirelessly to help improve neighborhoods and they are often under-resourced and under-funded,” said Orrin.

The Soulsville Neighborhood Association is interested in applying for the grant. They have several project opportunities that could use a boost of funding.

One of them is a “Light Up Soulsville” initiative where residents who have a light or electric  pole on their property would be invited to have a light installed for them by MLGW – especially to help illuminate dark, vacant lots next to houses.

“This is something MLGW does as a service. If you have a pole in your yard, MLGW will put a light on the pole for you at a nominal fee and adds a small $6 to $7 monthly charge to your utility bill. It helps light up vacant lots and we have a lot of vacant lots in Soulsville,” said Rebecca Hutchinson, member of Soulsville Neighborhood Association.

Another area of interest for residents is the rock garden project next to the “I Love Soulsville” mural at E. McLemore Ave. and Mississippi Blvd. Currently, they have an ioby project open to raise funds to buy plants for the rock garden. But they also need funds to spruce up the mural, which is showing wear and tear, and to continue beautification of the rock garden.

Hutchinson says there are so many needs in the neighborhood and things they would want to apply those funds to in Soulsville.

“They are small projects – low cost, short term – so those funds would really help to leverage other funds we have already received and be invaluable in helping build on the momentum of what we have already started in Soulsville,” said Hutchinson.

The fund will be awarded annually. This year, $75,000 was donated from the Hyde Family Foundation and the Kresge Foundation.

“We see the Empowerment Fund working hand-in-hand with our CDC Capacity Fund. At the same time, we are helping to build up CDCs, we also want to empower residents to be part of the process and work alongside each other to improve their community,” said Orrin.

The application process is open until Aug. 24. Applicants should show evidence of support from residents or the community. A pre-application rundown is required. Awards will be announced on Aug. 31.

Non-recipients will also be notified too. They will be informed why they didn’t receive a grant. That way, adjustments can be made to proposals and pitched again next year.

“Our philosophy is transparent grant-making. We want to make sure we are giving our applicants feedback so they can continue to refine their application for the next go-round,” said Orrin.

Clean water matters to new activist group formed to educate the public issues related to H2O

Since the turn of 2017, a group of Memphians have met weekly. The topic of conversation is one that is often taken for granted – water.

Beneath the city lies the Memphis Sand Aquifer. This hidden geological feature provides Memphis with some of the purest drinking water in the country. But what happens when the water travels from the ground and through the tap is a concern.

And it’s not just Memphis. In the wake of the Flint, Mich. water crisis many communities are inspecting their aging water infrastructure to prevent similar calamities from occurring.

Maria Wilder, a member of Clean Water Memphis, was drawn to the issue during a local Democratic party meeting. Among the speakers was Chet Kibble, a former employee of Memphis, Light Gas & Water and co-chair of Memphis & Shelby County Lead Safe Collaborative. One of the water quality-related topics discussed was lead poisoning.

“It was like a light bulb. When I moved here people kept telling me 'The water is really great'. It’s the aquifer so I didn’t question it. But when I heard Chet talk about the issue of lead contamination, I decided to drop all my other issues and concentrate on this one,” said Wilder.

So, a few of activists from Cooperative Memphis started talking about the issues around water and decided they needed to organize around this important issue.

Fellow member Laurel Cannito has opened her home to others who share a concern about the resource. Friday nights, they discuss potential threats to a safe, clean water supply for Memphis – like lead.

In February, all 50 states were sent a letter from the EPA. To reduce the risk of lead-contaminated drinking water, it suggested additional steps be taken by water systems. First among them was the removal of all lead pipes bringing water into houses. Per MLGW, as many as 30,000 houses in Memphis fall in this category.

“The water coming out of the aquifer is great. The problem comes in getting it to the houses. Lead pipes were used up until 1978. In Europe, they outlawed lead pipes back in the early 1900s. MLGW has promised to replace them all within 10 years,” said Hunt Herion, board member for Memphis & Shelby County Lead Safe Collaborative.

Lead, of course, is a highly toxic metal. It’s a known carcinogen. It’s also known to adversely affect mental health. Interestingly, researchers have noted a drop in the overall crime rate that seems to have coincided with the banning of lead in products like gasoline and paint.

“Lead has been linked to all types of mental disorders as well as physical. It affects high brain functions," said Herion. "The kind of discretion that tells you not to shoot your friend in the face. We’ve found some of the most violent places in the country test for some of the highest levels of lead contamination."

While circulating information, members of the Lead Safe Collaborative were approached by their Clean Water Memphis counterpart. They were soon invited to a Friday night Clean Water meeting.

“While our (Lead Safe Collaborative ) focus is on lead in water, CWM is about all issues related to the Memphis water supply: lead and fluoride, the pipeline and aquifer protection. I now meet with the CWM people regularly,” said Herion.

CWM also joined with Safe Lead Collaborative at a city council meeting on July 11 to address fluoride and trying to get it out of the water supply.

Fluoride has been repeatedly found to leach lead from water pipes and increase the levels of lead contamination.

CWM members have resolved a prime course of action is to educate the public around water issues.

A quick look at the TVA’s under-the-radar plan for the shallow aquifer highlights a lack of public information CWM is hoping to combat.

To cool the Allen Plant, the energy provider will drill wells 650 feet deep and pump 3.5 million gallons of water from the Memphis Sand aquifer per day. In terms of usage, it’s not an issue. MLGW customers guzzle 225 million gallons per day.

The fear is, while pumping, toxins from a shallower aquifer will contaminate the Sand aquifer.

Recently, samples taken from groundwater near the natural gas-generated plant stoked that fear.  They showed high levels of lead and arsenic.  One monitoring well had concentrations of arsenic over 300 times the federal drinking water standard.

Alarmed by the numbers, MLGW took samples from ten wells at the Davis Treatment facility near the plant. Testing was done at an independent lab. The results came back below detectable limits.

However, State Sen. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, penned a letter to David McCray, chairman of the Shelby Co. Ground Water Quality Control Board, calling for the permits for the cooling wells to be suspended pending a full investigation.

Others, like Wilder, think it’s just a bad idea in general. A game of Russian roulette with a vital resource. A loser's game, in the long run.

“Why do they have to take clean water away from us?” she opined.

On July 26, the Environmental Working Group released a report identifying contaminants in municipal drinking water across the country. In Shelby County, tap water met the state and federal standards but also had one or more contaminants in levels above guidelines scientists and health professionals say could pose health risks, according to the report.

Another infrastructure project the activist group finds troubling is the Diamond Pipeline. Starting in Cushing, Okla., the 440-mile pipeline runs over 11 drinking water sources, the Sand aquifer is one, before ending in Memphis.

“It seems like industry has decided that these pipelines are the way to go even though they keep spilling. They break. We are going to continue to see them break. The ground shifts, pipes get old and they just break,” said Herion.

In use for decades, the Diamond Pipeline was originally used to convey natural gas. It will be converted to a crude oil pipeline and link up with the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. With its endgame at the Gulf of Mexico, the Dakota been grabbing headlines for years.

It has also galvanized opposition along its route. It has drawn fierce opposition from environmentalists. It has also become a touchstone for indigenous people living in its path.

This past March, CWM helped support the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation’s prayer march through the Downtown streets. It was one of many examples of civil disobedience during an extended standoff.

Moving forward, CWM will continue to develop an infrastructure for education and action by working with other local water groups. And while weekly meetings were needed to kick things off, the group will move to meeting on the first Friday of every month.

“I believe this is an issue where white, black, Hispanic and indigenous people could come together and the people who come to the CWM meetings care about the water. No arguments or disagreements arise. Just a clear focus on the issues with our water,” said Wilder.

Memphis picked for Bloomberg's What Works Cities Initiative in a 'partnership to expertise'

Analytics isn’t just for sports franchises anymore. Counting beans and crunching numbers, it turns out, can address shortcomings in communities, too.

Memphis is the latest city to join the What Works Cities initiative. Started in 2015 by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the program isn’t one that throws money at a problem - it takes a hard look at the numbers.

Some of the issues being tackled by the organization are homelessness, public safety, and economic development. Improving open data resources and housing affordability have also been addressed.

So far, 85 cities with 27 million residents scattered across 37 states have joined. Other cities joining the fold this year are Arlington, Tex; Charleston, S.C.; Fort Collins, Colo.; and Sioux Falls, SD. Closer to home, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville are already taking part.

"Mayor Strickland has charged us with being the most transparent administration in the history of Memphis," said Kyle Veazey, City of Memphis deputy director of communications.

"In addition to everything else we’re doing to advance that, What Works Cities will help us develop a more comprehensive open data policy with the goal of making the city's data more usable and accessible to our citizens.”

In the effort toward transparency, the Strickland administration is set to work with the Sunlight Foundation through their new partnership with WWC. The nonprofit, good-government organization seeks openness from the lowest local offices up to the executive branch. It also comes from the Bloomberg Philanthropic wheelhouse.

Memphis will also coordinate with Results for America. Another nonprofit, it was selected by Bloomberg’s philanthropy to develop policies derived from data. The data will be based on community feedback. With on the ground, first person information the hope is the city’s data will become more applicable and accessible. Another hope is that it will improve the delivery of services to Memphians.

“This partnership allows us to access donated expertise from the WWC partner organizations – such as the Sunlight Foundation and Results for America. It also allows us to tap into the insight of other WWC member cities who have already crossed tackled this challenge,” said Veazey.

By engaging these other municipalities, they can draw from their data. A look at the numbers could reveal the program’s worth. They can also draw on any expertise gleaned during their tenure. This could lead to improved outcomes from private contractors, for instance. Or, create opportunities for innovation. Publishing data has also aided in providing equitable service.

“Many cities who want to use data don't have the capacity to do so in terms of personnel, resources and expertise. What Works Cities was created by Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2015 to address this data gap by connecting mid-sized cities with experts in open data, performance management, results-based contracting and other skills,” said Sharman Stein, director of communications, What Works Cities.

Although new to the WWC initiative, Memphis has used data to improve services. For the last 18 months, the city analyzed data to improve 911 response times. It took a dispatcher an average of 60 seconds to pick up the phone when Strickland came into office in January of 2016.

Now, the response time is 11 seconds.

Nationally, the standard for answering 95 percent of calls is 20 seconds or less. Memphis now falls within the eightieth percentile.

“Decision-making based on data and evidence is at the very core of what we do in our administration,” Mayor Strickland said.

“What Works Cities’ selection of Memphis will help us grow stronger in our use of data – and in how we’re transparent with the public.”

Before those decisions are made, there will be public engagement in some form or another. Through the discovery process, what kind of data is needed and how the public wants it delivered will be fleshed out. It could be a website, or maybe a downloadable spreadsheet.  

WWC was launched to provide technical expertise to 100 cities. The goal is to help them devise “twenty-first century governance strategies.” This will be done on a rolling basis through 2018.

“Memphis (and all cities) apply to participate in this initiative. Cities that are selected to be a What Works city have demonstrated that their mayor and leadership are committed to doing this work, and have the capacity to address their goals through this partnership,” said Stein.

So, in the future, don’t be surprised if you see more outreach from the City of Memphis. It could be through an online survey, social media, or other forms of engagement. It’s just an effort by the civic leaders to improve services; to provide more bang for your tax dollar buck through modern day analytical practices.

“Our selection as a What Works city, in my mind, shows that we’re gaining positive attention nationally for our commitment to governing using data and being transparent with our citizens,” said Veazey.

Memphis prepares to launch new initiative around city procurement to boost minority-owned businesses

More often procurement reform is becoming a priority for communities. It’s the idea of changing how public purchasing can reflect a city's economic diversity.

This past June, Memphis was one of five cities accepted into the City Accelerator cohort to increase spending to minority-owned businesses. The other cities are Charlotte, Chicago, Milwaukee and Los Angeles.

“These cities are taking a hard look at how they purchase goods and services for their communities,” said Ed Skyler, executive vice president for Global Public Affairs and Chairman of the Citi Foundation.

As part of the nationwide cohort, Memphis will receive a $100,000 grant to use toward their efforts to boost spending with small, diverse businesses in the area.

In an ideal setting, a city’s procurement process can increase the diversity of local vendors. The public contract can boost supply chains and jolt local employment figures and tax revenue.

“They recognize that there is an opportunity to strengthen their procurement practices—and cities overall—by connecting directly with the diverse businesses and ideas within their communities,” said Skylar.

This is becoming more important as large firms continue layoffs and new growth is coming from small businesses. With an estimated $1.6 trillion in procurement spending nationwide on the local level, there are opportunities out there for those businesses to grow.

Funded by nonprofits Living Cities and the Citi Foundation, the program started four years ago to increase economic activity and employment in low-income areas.

One way Memphis will go about its procurement process reform will be to take a hard look at data. For instance, information gathered from a recent study on disparity in city contracting will be helpful. It points out available minority vendors who are currently not being put to full use.

Memphis’ participation in the program will buoy efforts made to create equal opportunities to flourish economically.

"We know that for our economy to work, it must work for all,” said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. “That’s why improving the City of Memphis’ performance with minority and women-owned businesses has been a priority of mine since becoming mayor."

In addition to making the procurement process easier, the accelerator will help local businesses with hiring, access to capital, as well as administrative functions. Public-private partnerships could also be used to foster these initiatives.

Since Mayor Strickland assumed office in 2015, the city’s contract spending with small, minority and women-owned businesses has risen from 12 percent to 20 percent as of this past March.

"We are intentional about growing our business with small, minority and women-owned businesses, and just as intentional about empowering these businesses to grow," said Joann Massey, director of Office of Business Diversity and Compliance with the City of Memphis.

As part of the program, the five cities awarded a grant will work together to develop procurement solutions. Each city will also create at least one new strategy to increase the diversity of vendors and contractors. They will also find ways to increase purchases of goods and services from local minority-owned businesses.

The five communities will meet three times a year. Progress reports will be submitted on the success or failure of their solutions. The gatherings will be collaborative. Consultants from Griffin and Strong P.C., a law and public policy firm in Atlanta, will be on site to help develop plans for each city’s particular needs.

Since the accelerator’s inception in 2013, 12 U.S. cities have taken part. In Philadelphia, the city tried various means to inform seniors of subsidies offering a reduction in their water bills. In San Francisco, the accelerator is being used to develop an economic plan to reinforce the city’s seawall, which protects areas designated for public housing.

 “I think there will be a lot of really interesting work that comes out of this,” said Julie Bosland, associate director for public sector innovation at Living Cities and manager of the cohort.

“Part of how we chose the cohort was both their commitment and their readiness to move forward and really push the envelope, and also a constellation of cities and projects that could really provide ideas in some different areas that would be models for other communities.”

Thomas & Betts planned expansion into East Memphis to add 75 jobs and over $20M in investment

With a move in the works from their old corporate headquarters in Southwind, Thomas & Betts is looking to invest $20.7 million and add 75 employees when they transfer to ServiceMaster’s former headquarters at 860 Ridge Lake Blvd. in East Memphis.

The investment and extra manpower hinges on the approval of a tax abatement incentive. The application calls for a 15-year payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT). If approved, it will defray $3,142,573 of the costs. The project will also help the company retain 523 current jobs.

“Thomas & Betts adding jobs to our community’s corporate landscape is significant. Thomas & Betts will have a signature presence in the east Memphis area. We so appreciate their investment to Memphis and Shelby County,” Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell, Jr. said.

The Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) of Memphis and Shelby Co. will consider the application on Wednesday, July 19.

“I want to thank ABB and Thomas & Betts for expanding in Memphis and for creating new jobs in Shelby County,” said Bob Rolfe, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner. “The manufacturing sector in Tennessee has gained over 46,000 jobs since 2011. I appreciate Thomas & Betts for continuing the momentum of the manufacturing sector for our state, and I look forward to our continued partnership.”

In 2012, ABB purchased the components manufacturer. Thomas & Betts is a division of ABB’s Electrification Products Division.

“Memphis and Thomas & Betts have been partners for over a quarter century,” Franklin Sullivan, lead division manager, United States, ABB Electrification Products Division, said in a release. “We have found it to be a perfect place to do business, with a hard-working, highly educated workforce. We’re pleased to be beginning a new chapter in our history here.”

When the expansion is complete, the manufacturer of electrical components will have 598 employees on its payroll.

According to the company, the base salary for its employees will be average to $86,788, excluding benefits.

The PILOT expansion will allow the company to merge research and development from around the country into the Ridge Lake address. It will also permit them to consolidate parts of their transportation and logistics operations in the area.

Investment in the project includes $12.9 million for new furniture, fixtures and computer equipment for the new facility. There will also be $7.5 million devoted to renovating the Ridge Lake location.

EDGE officials have estimated $45 million in local tax revenues will flow in during the PILOT.

As a requirement of the PILOT, Thomas & Betts must spend at least $2.3 million on certified minority and women-owned businesses in Memphis and Shelby Co.

“By choosing the city of Memphis as the place it believes it can best grow, Thomas & Betts is adding to the momentum we’re experiencing of late,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said. “With strong amenities and a great quality of life, Memphis is a great city for companies looking for a promising future.”

Summer AgTech Youth program takes off at the Agricenter

If you were to throw out a shortlist of emerging technologies that are quickly gaining mainstream appeal, drones could easily make a lot of people’s top five.

They are commonly used by the military and police. You can spot them hovering over ballfields. Photographers use them, likewise hunters. If you want a birds’ eye perspective, they are an affordable tool.

Their use is also becoming more common in agriculture.

Starting on June 19, a dozen high school juniors and seniors began to learn more about this growing trend. They are taking part in the AgTech Summer Youth initiative at the Agricenter International. The pilot program presents career opportunities in agriculture and business technology.

“It is a really hands on class and they will even have a drone company coming in. They will build their own drones and learn how to control them, which they get to take home at the end of the program,” said John Butler, CEO of Agricenter International.

The teens will learn how drones are used in agriculture.

“The technical expertise of the program is at the highest level. A lot of the presenters are Ph.D.s and are experts in the industry,” said Butler.

While drones are cool and trending, they are just one part of a larger five-part program hosted at the Agricenter, which covers 1,000 acres just south of Walnut Grove Road. 

The six-week curriculum explores the business of agriculture and highlights what is increasingly becoming a technology-driven sector of the economy. Memphis-based venture capital fund Innova Memphis recently launched a $31 million investment to support technological innovations in farming and agriculture. 

The AgTech Summer Youth initiative's goal is to present agriculture as an option for young people as a growing career field. Kids also receive $12 an hour from participating in the program.

“The summer program is a trial for the Agricenter since they’ve never done a program like this. They’re paying the kids a stipend to participate. It’s a very professional environment,” said Bob Wilson, CEO of H.Saga International/Port Alliance. Wilson is also an investor in the innovative summer program.

In addition, First Tennessee is prepping the students on how to open a bank account, balance a checkbook and put a budget together.

“They talk about credit, how it can be used well and how it can put you into the hole,” added Wilson.

The program’s primary aim is about building skills that will increase the student's viability in the marketplace.

“It feeds a STEM initiative, and there are great jobs out in that field that can be achieved on those different education levels – high school, trade and college," said Wilson. "It also promotes important life skills: how you present yourself during an interview; how to accept and maintain a job."

Centered around agriculture, the program won’t be bereft of opportunities to spend a little time outdoors.

“It keeps them involved in positive activities during the summer,” said Wilson.

Weekly field trips will also be held.  For example, a trip to Hardin County is in the works. Students will visit a new 4-H camp at Lone Oaks Farm.

“It certainly is a class but it gives them the opportunity to do something a little different than a regular classroom. They make sure that the class is a great outdoor experience and the students will be outside a lot and will be walked through different crops,” said Butler.

A couple of years in the making, the program getting off the ground is due, in large part, to the passion of Wilson and Butler.

Wilson spearheaded funding for the initial cohort of the AgTech Summer Youth initiative. Wilson's personal contributions and fundraising through the Kiwanis Club of Northeast Shelby Co. garnered $22,000 to get the program off the ground. 

The entire program is being made possible by an alliance of sponsors including H. Saga/Port Alliance, Kiwanis, 901 Drones, and First Tennessee among many other contributors.

Following the program, evaluations will be made to help shape the following year.

But the ultimate impact of the program may be something less tangible and not easily measured.

“So often we seem to lean back on the idea of go to college and get a degree as the only option. That is not the only option, nor a realistic option for everybody,” said Wilson.

And those seeking degrees sometimes look outside of Memphis to gain their education – and don’t return to their hometown. This essentially leads to a brain drain that siphons off intellect to larger, seemingly more appealing markets.

There are options for youth to earn good money right here in Memphis, Wilson stressed. Opportunities that are accessible to those right out of high school. Others may require some time at a trade school. College grads are always welcome.

And yes, there are opportunities in agriculture.

“If we want this community to continue to grow and have the positive feedback with the new millennials wanting to move to Memphis then we as business and civic leaders need to make sure our youth know there are plenty of options here for them. I think this program does an outstanding job toward that goal,” said Wilson.

If everything is up to grade, the program will be expanded to more students next year. The hope is to double the size. They are also working on accreditation for those pursuing college credits.

Fundraising has already started. Plans are in the works to take it to the national level with the Kiwanis Club. If it’s a go, grant money would recur every summer to sustain the program into the future.

New TAG Truck Center and training facility on pace for revitalization of the former Mall of Memphis

The erstwhile Mall of Memphis property received an injection of federal tax credits to help fund its conversion into the TAG Truck Center. The credits go towards the revitalization efforts for low-income areas.

The partnership between Stonehenge Capital, McCormack Baron Salazar and Suntrust Community Capital will finance the 164,000-square-foot space. The firms are investing $23 million through the Federal New Markets Tax Credit Program.

“TAG Truck Center is a great example of a community-transforming investment made through New Markets Tax Credits, providing needed jobs in a low-income area and positioning the business for future growth,” said L’Quentus Thomas, Stonehenge’s director of community development.

When complete, the TAG Truck Center is expected to provide hundreds of jobs to the long-abandoned site. The mall closed in 2003.

The redevelopment came about because of a lack of space for a company eager to grow. Initially, TAG Trucks wanted to buy 40 acres of the property.

Last September, Huntington Industrial Partners and Johnson Development Associates, both out of Atlanta, pursued a 15-year, $24.7 million tax break from the Memphis-Shelby County Economic Development Growth Engine Board (EDGE).

A speculative venture, the plan was to build warehouses on the remaining expanse. The EDGE board voted to postpone the decision as speculative projects had never been issued a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes incentive (PILOT) before.

Rejected, the developers approached TAG Trucks about buying the entire site.

“As soon as that PILOT was denied, they called us and said ‘Hey, do you want to buy the whole property?’” said Gary Dodson, CFO and co-founder of TAG.

So, they went ahead and purchased the entire 113-acre parcel.

During the transaction, a friend counseled Dodson to consider both the New Market Tax Credit Program and the local PILOT as well.

“We started doing research about the economics of the area and were taken aback by what we found on the average incomes and level of unemployment,” said Dodson. “At this point, we really started to think about how much we could help the area with this project.”

“I believe our development will help the community and I think it will do the things the EDGE program is trying to do,” said Dodson.

“TAG Truck Center is the type of investment that our low-income communities need – investments that bring access to living wage jobs for entry-level employees, on-the-job training, and room for career advancement,” said Laurel Tinsley, McCormack Baron Salazar's Urban Initiatives CDE’s executive director.

When the site is developed, TAG Truck Center will merge their four area operations at the new location. The remaining 113 acres bordered by American Way and I-240 will be sold.

“We really think it can become a hub for the logistics business and provide us a better place to do business for our customers,” said Dodson.

Currently, TAG Trucks trains its technicians at an older building in West Memphis that isn’t configured for its needs. The new building will remedy the shortcomings.

At the new center, a full-service body shop, retail store and distribution center will populate the space. There will also be a technician training facility. The beneficiary of an expansion, the training facility will offer job training and education opportunities. There will be an estimated 205 full-time employees working at the center.

“We train all of our technicians ourselves. We are like a car dealership for big trucks. Most of our customers are business to business, meaning we do have some owner-operators but mostly we deal with large fleets – Swift, FedEx – and we’re a Daimler dealer so they are some off-site training in Detroit,” said Dodson

No experience is necessary to apply. After graduating, students will be fully certified and prepared for upcoming certification exams.

“We don’t hire college graduates to be technicians. They are generally high school graduates or GED that can work their way into a middle-class wage and get some money circulating in the community.”

TAG deals in Freightliner, Mitsubishi and Sprinter trucks and has 10 full-service dealerships in five states.

The new center is under construction and expected to be open by the end of the year.

Made By Project: Entrepreneurs and data central to solving Memphis makers’ challenges

New programs and initiaves coming to Memphis will bolster the growing population of makers and artisans. 

EPIcenter and Little Bird Innovation have announced the first recommendations from a development plan with the focus is on growing and strengthening local maker businesses.

Data from the Made By Project was used in forming the plan. It comes from “first of its kind” research of over 300 makers, artisans and micro-manufacturers in the greater Memphis area.

The project was launched for the benefit of manufacturers who have physical goods for sale, such as food, apparel or crafted items.

“Made By is a first-of-its-kind initiative to understand the lives and livelihoods of Memphis-area makers, artisans and small-scale manufacturers, with the goal of developing a multi-year plan that supports and grows this group of local business owners,” said Nicole Heckman, co-founder of Memphis-based Little Bird Innovation and the Made By Project.

The focal point of the project is Shelby County, particularly its struggling neighborhoods. The ensuing plan highlights solutions for maker business to develop and implement programs and infrastructure to meet consumer demand.

The recommendations span three categories: infrastructure, skill-building and optimization.

Recommendations from the plan concerning entrepreneurial support will be piloted by EPIcenter. Little Bird Innovation will continue its work developing a network of makers via Made By Project outreach.

“Think of infrastructure as a house that needs a solid foundation and skill-building as the windows and doors that open to new opportunities," Heckman said. "Optimization represents the special touches that set your house, or business in this case, apart from all the others and make it the envy of the neighborhood,” said Heckman.

Infrastructure gets first priority. The subsequent solutions are built upon it.

A business plan competition and two Co.Starters cohort educational programs were recommended for the first phase to start building the foundation.

“We’re excited that the first two recommendations from the plan actually look to entrepreneurs to build businesses around proposed solutions,” said Leslie Smith, president and CEO of EPIcenter.

In the fall, EPIcenter will launch the business solution competition. It will address logistics-related challenges identified through Made By research. More information about the proposed solutions in the logistics space, application process, and competition prizes will be released in August.

The groups also plan to facilitate two Co.Starters cohorts in the late summer and winter. The nine-week programs will lend insights and tools to entrepreneurs. Each week, they will address fundamentals of business ownership and operation.

“The infrastructure solutions address gaps in our ecosystem, such as the fact that Memphis is a global logistics leader, but this conveys little competitive advantage today to local makers,” said Heckman

Memphis’ makers face challenges sourcing affordable, local raw materials; finding affordable, turnkey studio space can also be a hurdle. And with the city's high poverty rate, it’s hard to deny that an un-equitable access to capital exists, particularly for women and minorities.

Finally, Memphis needs its maker community to advocate their needs collectively, be they policy, education, or consumer awareness.

“Solving for these challenges and others like them will help to retain our creative talent and attract it from elsewhere as makers see that Memphis values creative entrepreneurship and small-scale manufacturing,” said Heckman.

The effort isn’t happening in a vacuum. Last year, online marketplace Etsy named Memphis a “Maker City.” It’s a title handed to municipalities that “value entrepreneurship, sustainability, and responsible manufacturing,” according to Etsy.com.

“Makers and the products they create embody our city’s spirit and authenticity. While these efforts to support and grow maker businesses will positively affect the Memphis economy, they also promote a culture of creativity that is attractive to our citizens and our visitors alike,” said Smith.

A lot of credit for the honor goes to the Made By Project and its research. This past February, the project released data from a survey of 315 local makers.

“No other city has invested in such a rigorous qualitative and quantitative research approach before developing recommendations,” said Heckman.

Interviews spanned a wide array of craft type, time in business, geography and race. This was done to gain a broad perspective.

They also mapped the current business environment that supports makers. This includes educational opportunities to advance their skillset, as well as available sourcing and logistics services.

“Makers can be doing everything right, but if key skill-building classes and services aren’t available to them locally, that puts them at a competitive disadvantage,” said Heckman.

Overall, the plan proposes to increase the number of maker enterprises, especially women and minorities, adhering to the maker-model. Not to mention the variety and quality of products made.

“We are extremely excited about the implementation plans, as much of it entails entrepreneurs supporting other entrepreneurs," said Heckman.

"Several proposed solutions do not need an organization to spearhead them; what they need are entrepreneurs who feel passionately about solving for critical pain points makers are experiencing."

To that end, EPIcenter will seek entrepreneurs to build businesses around several of the recommended solutions, including leveraging the region’s global logistics capabilities into a competitive advantage.

A handful of concepts, makers and other entrepreneurs have approached Made By during feedback events. They shared their interest in making these specific ideas happen. Details on the remainder of the implementation plans will follow.

“As the hub of the entrepreneurial network, EPIcenter will work with partners to roll out additional solutions that address challenges and opportunities for makers,” said Smith.

Additionally, nominations for a Maker Council are under way. The body will give “guidance and advice” to foster entrepreneurship in the Bluff City. Self-nominations are welcome too, provided they are turned in by the June 30 deadline.

“We envision this group as leaders that can collaborate with makers, other creatives and civic leaders to capitalize on the opportunities in front of us,” said Heckman.

“We are looking for makers who are deeply passionate about the future of the Memphis maker community, want to advise on how businesses can better meet maker needs, have seasoned experience as a creative entrepreneur and enjoy giving thoughtful feedback.”

Great Streets pilot project reshapes vision for Memphis roadways

It was a party. A street party to be exact.

Hosted by the Downtown Memphis Commission, the “Street Party for Great Streets” kicked off the Great Streets pilot project on Tuesday, June 27.

The event featured live music, games, refreshments, extended happy hours and sidewalk sales. It also coincided with the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals’ national conference, hosted in Memphis this year.

The City of Memphis, in partnership with the Urban Art Commission, undertook the innovative project to re-envision Memphis streets. Peabody Place in Downtown Memphis got a pedestrian-friendly makeover. 

“We are taking a nearly mile-long corridor through the heart of Downtown and transforming it into a street that works well for everyone who uses it whether they’re on foot, on a bike or in a car,” said Nicholas Oyler, bike and pedestrian Manager for the City of Memphis.

The concept is centered around the belief that high-quality, people-oriented design can transform streets into a true public space. Infrastructure can be elevated to an amenity that’s safe and adds vibrancy to the community.

The timing of the project was coordinated around the 2017 Professional Development Seminar conference. It is one of the largest conferences of its kind in the country. Past meetings had upwards of 400 to 500 attendees.

“It got us thinking: what can we do, being on the national stage for this one week, to show and demonstrate Memphis is doing great things to make our city more walkable, more bikeable,” said Oyler.

While the confab was a motivating factor, the hope is that it will serve as impetus for something larger and permanent.

“The conference is great for one week with visitors in town but it also needed to be something that benefits Memphians. And gets Memphians to start to think that there is an alternative to the way many of our streets are currently designed,” said Oyler.

Most major thoroughfares were designed for automobiles. The concerns of pedestrians, cyclists and riders of public transit were often secondary.

There has been some headway. Bike paths have an imprimatur on many oft-traveled streets connecting Midtown with the Downtown area, for example. But much work still needs to be done to capitalize on the potential.  

“With support for these kind of projects, these kind of changes, we can do this around the city. It doesn’t have to be just Downtown. All neighborhoods should have great streets,” said Oyler.

The Great Streets pilot project will run an east-west corridor for cyclists and pedestrians from the riverfront to the FedEx area. Bike lanes and a spacious pedestrian plaza will be installed. The latter will feature outdoor dining, pop-up vendors and local art.

The first leg of project started at Peabody Place due to its excess width. For two blocks a lane of traffic has been removed. Some elements are familiar. The restriped road puts parking on either side of the street, one lane eastbound, the other west. The extra width is devoted to pedestrian space, bike lanes and so forth.

In addition, IKEA donated outdoor furniture of tables and chairs for the project.

Financing has been achieved through private sponsorship and donations, which have covered about two-thirds of the $200,000 cost. Dozens of sponsors have emerged. They range from large donors, like FedEx and Autozone, to smaller businesses like Silly Goose Lounge.

All design was done in-house. Oyler drew up the conceptual designs. The city’s engineering staff converted those into construction drawings.

Other big cities in the U.S. have tried similar street improvements in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago which are all first tier and globally recognized.

“I think to bring it to Memphis really is special. It’s something I believe will put us ahead of our peer cities and show we are doing innovative things in Memphis,” said Oyler.

The ultimate success of the project will be based on performance metrics of City Engineering. Safety, usage, and economic development will be the key. If all things go as planned, in a year, an application for a federal transportation grant to fully re-construct the passage will be submitted by the city to make it permanent.

Another benefit of the project is that it creates a seamless connection from Midtown to Riverfront to travel by bike.

“Since we have this connection, we believe we’ll see more people riding their bikes to the Riverfront, Downtown and Midtown, whether it’s for recreation or commuting for work,” said Oyler.

This will fill a gap in the city’s overall bicycle network. The route of Peabody and MLK Boulevard acts as a natural entrance to the Downtown area when biking from Midtown. This summer, the City will install protected bike lanes on MLK that end at the Downtown-Midtown nexus.

Along with the newly announced Bike Share program, projects like Great Streets are encouraging an alternative way of thinking about transportation.

But they need to work together. Bike Share’s success hinges, in large part, if there are enough bike lanes around the city to make it worth the effort.

“There really is a synergy between a bike share and what the city is doing to make our streets safer to bike. And everything else we are doing to encourage other modes of transportation, making it easier to get around the city without a car,” said Oyler

Those first and last mile gaps are important pieces to the transportation puzzle. Biking has an opportunity to fill some of the breach.

“We are never going to have a bus line on every street so we have to find to make up that gap," said Oyler.

Nicholas Oyler, bike and pedestrian manager for City of Memphis, Lauren Kennedy, executive director for the UrbanArt Commission, and DougMcGowan, COO for City of Memphis, kicked off the June 27 event.
"In a city where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, many people don’t have the option of a car. Anything we can do to make it easier for people to get around the city, to access jobs, opportunities for education, or recreation, improves quality of life."

Bike lanes aren’t just about recreation and exercise. They are mainly about transportation and open access for all Memphians.

The project isn’t complete. The basic street work has been done. The popup retail market, meanwhile, is a month away. Vendors will share the pedestrian space.

LRK is designing new open-air booths. EPIcenter will manage the booth rentals and vendors which are mainly small businesses and entrepreneurs lacking brick and mortar space.

A large public art component is also still to come. The Urban Art Commission is curating a free-standing mural wall. Every two to three months a new artist will paint it anew.

“This exciting project will demonstrate what’s possible when city planners and engineers collaborate with artists on projects that enrich a community,” said Lauren Kennedy, executive director for the UrbanArt Commission.

Streets are a public space, not asphalt and a little paint. Cycling and walking allow people to view the city from a different vantage point.

“For this to be successful, it’s an important the public feels a sense of ownership for this space and its amenities,” said Oyler.

New timeline catalogs Memphis' LGBTQ history

Memphis’ Guild Theater held the first ever openly gay event in Memphis history, Miss Gay Memphis, on October 31, 1969. Halloween night was chosen so that there would be no arrests for then-illegal cross-dressing.

The organizer and owner of the theater was the late Bill Kendall. His theater was known for showing arthouse films, which included LGBT films, European films and what Shelby County considered illegal smut.

Charged with showing pornographic films under the state’s 106-year-old obscenity laws, Kendall took his case to the Tennessee Supreme Court. In 1974, the court ruled the laws unconstitutional.

The piece of Memphis history is only one small part of the untold story OUTMemphis is bringing to the light with its online Mid-South LGBTQ history timeline. It can be viewed here.

Primarily focused on Memphis history, the local events, told through newspapers, magazines, photos and videos, are placed in the context of landmark national milestones like the founding of the Mattachine Society, the Stonewall riots and both the signing and repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

“Our history is much richer than people think,” said OUTMemphis executive director Will Batts.

“It didn’t start with Stonewall; there is so much more. So, we needed to share it. It’s important for people to know this is a movement; it’s not just a passing thing. We’ve been around a long time and we’re everywhere. There are so many ways that we’ve influenced culture in this city.”

Supporting the timeline’s creation are longtime and new Memphians, such as Rhodes College historical archive interns Cameron Sandlin and Brad Bierdz.

Memphian Vincent Astor provided much of the foundational material. He has collected LGBTQ artifacts since 1975, and his collection currently resides at the Memphis-Shelby County Room at the main library.  

Because of OUTMemphis’ unique and public profile among the LGBTQ community in Memphis, people have donated items to the Midtown nonprofit for years. Batts said they have closets and file cabinets full of clothes, publications and at least 20,000 photos.

While all the printed materials have been scanned and uploaded thanks to Rhodes College’s Crossroads to Freedom archive, discussions are ongoing about what to do with their physical counterparts.

Batts acknowledges that their collection is a small subset of the larger Memphis LGBTQ history that mostly represents white Memphians.  They plan to flesh out the timeline by recruiting Anthony Hardaway of Friends for Life to contribute to the timeline, who has saved artifacts of the African-American gay experience in Memphis.

“People have been putting themselves on the front line for a long time and it’s important for us to know that. We’re part of a larger movement and cultural shift in how we view gender and sex and people in general.

We’re not alone. There are people in all walks of life and different stations who are LGBT and we should embrace that history,” said Batts.

Real estate startup FrontDoor is the first tenant in ServiceMaster innovation center

A startup dedicated to lowering the amount home sellers pay in commission to realtors has become the first tenant in the new ServiceMaster Innovation Center at 150 Peabody.

The focus of the new innovation center named The Ground Floor will be on helping IT developers grow their ideas into marketable services and products. In addition to sharing space next to like-minded entrepreneurs, renters will enjoy the benefit of speeches and panels by experts in their fields.

Participating startups will also cohabitate with ServiceMaster's headquarters. 

“Being able to work in the space with like-minded people constantly working on innovating the real estate and home service industry is a naturally good fit for us,” said FrontDoor founder and CEO Jessica Buffington.

“ServiceMaster is a huge corporation who touches thousands of homes every day and is in 'startup mind' mode,” added Buffington, who is also a real estate agent.

In this Petrie dish of ideas, advice and information, FrontDoor hopes to continue to develop its plan to take real-estate sales into a more tech-savvy world.

The idea is to do away with all the usual attention getters, such as flyers or yard signs, that agents have historically used to get the attention of sellers. Technology is the main tool.

A seller uploads photos of their home and a description to a website. They are then put in touch with an agent, who puts the property on market. In the days that follow, agents will still perform all the duties typically expected of them, like showings and open houses.

FrontDoor requires sellers pay a flat $2,500 to realtors, who usually receive a 3 percent commission. Add the buyer’s agent to the mix and the total doubles. The change can generally save sellers thousands of dollars.

The process doesn’t seem any more difficult than listing an item on eBay – at least to the uninitiated. Buffington plans to make it even easier.

“One of our main goals is educating the public of our services and further automating our technology to help with the process.”

Founded in 2015, FrontDoor’s early days were spent growing under Start Co.’s guidance. The female-led company worked out of the local business accelerator’s space until the recent move. Today, her company represents over 100 agents in all 50 states.

“FrontDoor is rapidly growing and has already saved homeowners three million in commission fees. We plan on doubling our hires in the next 3 months and launching a new technology to help further automate the home selling and buying process,” said Buffington.

If things go right, their decision to relocate to The Ground Floor may accelerate the process.

New hope brims for HopeWorks’ new Summer Avenue location

Nonprofit HopeWorks is moving forward on a relocation to position themselves between two high-needs neighborhoods this September.

The main reason for the move can be summed up with one word – location.

The new headquarters at 3337 Summer Ave. will strategically place its workforce development programs between the neighborhoods of Binghampton and the Heights. The current headquarters on Union Ave. has been their home since founding in 1988.

“I believe HopeWorks will be a place of hope for many in our community,” said Jared Myers, Executive Director for the Heights Community Development Corporation.

The move has been in the works for a while.

Two years ago, Myers and Noah Gray, Executive Director for the Binghampton Community Development Corporation, were approached by their HopeWorks counterpart, Ron Wade, with the idea.

“Ron was very strategic in where he saw HopeWorks moving and believed that partnering with neighborhoods and community organizations would greatly improve the impact of their ministry,” said Myers.

While scouting locations, considering neighborhood revitalization plans, and speaking with community stakeholders, Wade began to envision Summer Ave. as the nonprofit’s new home.

A property was secured at the Old Southern Federal Credit Union Building, offering 10,000 square feet of space. The old building is 6,000 square feet.

More square footage is needed due to recent growth HopeWorks has experienced. An estimated 600 students will earn high school equivalency diplomas through their various programs this year.

“The past two years has brought unprecedented growth at HopeWorks, particularly in the areas of Adult Education (High School equivalency attainment) and teaching within the Shelby County Division of Correction,” said Wade. “Because of this growth in services and the need for more classroom space, HopeWorks decided to move into a location that would provide long-term sustainability.”

It will also provide accessibility. The main bus line is nearby. There is also a new bike lane adjacent to the property. And it’s easily reachable by foot.

“The fact that HopeWorks is sandwiched in between two low-income areas makes it easy for people to walk to the new location,” said Myers.

Another benefit of the Summer Ave. site is its status as a commercial corridor. It is home to hundreds of “blue-collar” businesses – and potential employers.

The strip is also host to many “predatory” style business – payday lenders, pawn shops, used car dealerships, and tax services litter the roadside.

“Instead of moving to Summer Avenue to take advantage of people who live on fixed incomes, Hope Works is moving to Summer Avenue to serve and help people,” said Myers.

The new addition will close the loop on service available to residents. The area has health and dental clinics that provide care. Tutoring and afterschool programs are available. Blighted properties are also being addressed.

“The one missing piece was workforce development and employment. With a new location on Summer, Hope Works will help fill that void,” said Myers.

One employment option that will be coming to the area is the planned commercial development at Tillman and Cooper, a project that’s been in the works for over ten years.

“We are planning on working with Noah Gray and the Binghampton Development Corporation to provide training for the employees that will be employed by the businesses within the commercial development,” said Wade.

In addition to jobs, the Binghampton Gateway Center will bring increased access to fresh food in the community.

As far as HopeWorks’ space, a lot of work still needs to be done.

When work is completed, HopeWorks will be outfitted with additional classroom and testing space. There are even plans for a commercial kitchen. The new facility will employ 15 and serve the needs of 60 people a week on average.

To help pay for the costs of the remediation and remodel, the nonprofit was awarded a $20,000 loan by the Economic Development Growth Engine Finance committee on June 7. The forgivable ICED loan will cover about half of the expenses for the remodel.

The EDGE board has granted around 40 ICED loans totaling a little more than $3 million. They sustained 175 jobs and created $8.6 million in capital investments in high-needs neighborhoods.

Although the old Midtown HopeWorks locale will be closed, plans are under consideration to continue services to the area.

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