Economic Recovery Town Hall highlights how Memphis has pivoted in pandemic

By , Daily Memphian Updated: June 19, 2020 6:28 PM CT | Published: June 19, 2020 6:00 PM CT

Although the coronavirus pandemic has caused economic and social despair in this region and around the globe, it has also been a catalyst for meaningful change.

Friday, the FedEx Institute of Technology helped air some of the high points in a virtual COVID-19 Economic Recovery Town Hall, organized to look at the recovery here and innovations the pandemic has spurred in the private and public spheres.

In a 90-minute discussion, city and business leaders discussed the changes and sometimes the complete awe they felt for the brilliance people have shown individually and collectively to weather the storm.

On top of the suffering COVID-19 has caused, the protests taking place around the city remind Ernest Strickland, senior vice president of workforce development at the Greater Memphis Chamber, that the old normal “wasn’t working so well.”

FedEx Institute offering COVID recovery town hall meeting on Friday

“Having a new normal is something that is inspiring for me,” Strickland said. “It’s also inspiring to see how resilient we are.” He noted that “we have never been through anything quite like this before.

“And we made it. … Our economy took some bumps and bruises. There’s a lot of pain associated with COVID. But we’re still here. We’re still thinking about ways of improving our communities,” he said, adding that an extreme test “makes you stronger, makes you more resilient.”

Amidst the optimism he shared was the chamber’s early ability to create on its website a job board of immediate openings. In several months, the page has had 30,000 unique views, Strickland said.

“So now that we’ve opened up these channels, what we’ve gained is digital real estate where the community is looking for us for accurate information,” Strickland said. “We will definitely maintain it.”

Other panelists included Ted Townsend, chief economic development and government relations officer at the University of Memphis; Joann Massey, head of business diversity and compliance for the City of Memphis; and Kyle Veazey, deputy chief operating officer for the city.

The discussion was moderated by Raminder Lotay, manager of projects and facilitation at the FedEx Institute of Technology.

Among the victories are partnerships that came together quickly to serve the emergency school lunch program for Shelby County Schools and SCS’ quick adoption of take-home devices and internet connectivity for all students.

“As someone once said, never allow a crisis to go to waste,” Strickland said. “Having our large school system of over 100,000 students able to have a device and connectivity, that is an amazing opportunity for increased learning.

Memphis students to get laptops and tablets starting in August

“Here’s an opportunity for us to do something great, and something that we would have loved to do all along,” he said.

Massey, who is serving on the SCS reentry committee, shared her pride in how quickly SCS was “able to shift” to provide summer learning opportunities, including online courses at Southwest Tennessee Community College and accompanying certifications through the city’s Youth Employ, and work the University of Memphis has done to make online learning seamless.

“We really, truly are doing so much, I know in this community, but across the nation to break down systemic barriers and challenges that have existed for so many years for people because of lack of access to resources,” Massey said. “All of those things are really changing, so I’m very hopeful.

“On the other side of this, the country will be something very, very different. And that’s a good thing,” Massey said.

Leaders affirmed that the region’s economy, based in logistics and e-commerce, actually has done well in the economic downturn, with 1,421 new jobs, up several hundred from the same time last year.

While it’s too soon to know if the billions of dollars in development planned Downtown are still a go, the $1.4 billion Union Row mixed-use development is still a go, Townsend said.

“What I love about this aspect of Union Row, is it’s focusing on this digital inclusion and turning on what we think is a basic utility, but also a necessity for everyone, and that’s broadband to the South City neighborhood and others,” he said.

Because Union Row is in an Opportunity Zone, “they are pulling all the levers to maximize the private investment being put in,” he said.

University students will be digital mentors, Townsend said.

“It opens us up for FDA grants, and I know that there are a couple of those opportunities that are in the near future as well, which we will pursue as a collaborative. But that’s how I think we continue to build that density of tech innovation workforce and inclusion.”

With the city’s adoption of Memphis 3.0, a comprehensive plan for the next two decades, Veazey says there is reason to expect more precise investment in underserved communities.

“City government, under the leadership of Mayor (Jim) Strickland, has a true road map for investing in areas that have not seen it for too long,” he said.

So, when discussions at City Hall turn to investments or innovations, Veazey said it will make sense to anchor them in a specific part of the city.

“You start doing that and you start incorporating that into the culture of city government, and I think you can really start to get on a roll. We’re beginning to see the start of that here.”

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do. 

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COVID 19 Economic Recovery Town Hall Ted Townsend Kyle Veazey Joann Massey Ernest Strickland
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers healthcare and higher education for The Daily Memphian.


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