published Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

Memphis mayor urges Chattanooga to diversify business participation

Memphis mayor A C Wharton speaks during the Diversify 2013 Expo luncheon presented by the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Wednesday. Wharton was the keynote speaker for Chamber's inaugural event.
Memphis mayor A C Wharton speaks during the Diversify 2013 Expo luncheon presented by the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Wednesday. Wharton was the keynote speaker for Chamber's inaugural event.
Photo by Patrick Smith /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

There was renewed excitement about bringing Chattanooga-area minorities into the business sphere following the inaugural Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce's Diversify luncheon Wednesday.

Greg Walton stood by a table with carpet, wood flooring and furniture samples after Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., told to a crowd about the good things the Scenic City is doing -- the riverfront area, the arts culture and the "Chattanooga comeback" since heavy industry got the boot three decades ago.

Walton asked everyone who came by his booth, at the end of a line of others, if they had wobbly chairs at home. His company can fix that, he'd tell them.

Walton is a lifelong Chattanoogan. He's the sales representative for a couple of Chattanooga-area companies. And he's a black man.

He handed Jules Kinder a business card and told her the broken foot on her antique couch could be fixed, but the entire piece would likely need reupholstering.

Then, it was her turn to make a pitch.

Kinder is the development officer at the Ronald McDonald House on Third St. She laid out her visit plainly: "We need more diversity on our board." Kinder is a white woman.

"It's refreshing," she said, to be outright with the truth. It was a relief to her to cut out dodges around race.

That's the start Wharton was fishing for. But as the saying goes -- and Wharton's experience show --hope isn't a plan.

That's partially why the Chamber made Wharton its Diversify keynote speaker. During his tenure as mayor of Memphis, Wharton has worked to expand minority-owned businesses in the local economy.

"It's not enough to be good in our heart," he said. It takes some "intentionality."

Wharton said Wednesday that despite making up 53 percent of Memphis' population, black residents only represented a small percentage of its business owners, contractors and participants in government projects when he took office.

"There were so many things that were wrong," he said.

He told Chattanooga-area business leaders about his efforts in Memphis, and said they're potential starting points for Chattanooga.

As mayor, Wharton encourages minority-owned contractors to stop bidding against one another for jobs and join forces to increase their participation. His office is actively pursuing minority participantion in arts, sports and general construction projects.

Some of his maneuvers are as unpopular as they sound.

"You will be sued," he said. "It will not be easy along the way."

But he said it's the price a city will pay for the active inclusion of its minorities, an untapped resource of sorts. And it isn't throwing them a bone, he said.

"This is not about giving a break to anybody. It's not what we can do for them, but what can they do for this great city."

And he asked for minorities to be considered for what they bring to the table, not what color they are.

"Judge me on what I produce," Wharton said.

Walton said if a white man selling the very same products were set up next to him in the vendor line, Walton "would be at a disadvantage."

Why? That's the question.

"I don't have the answer," he said. But with some hope and some indicators of a plan by the Chattanooga Chamber and the Berke administration, he's looking forward.

"Change is good for everyone at some point in time," he said.

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

about Alex Green...

Alex Green joined the Times Free Press staff full-time in January 2014 after completing the paper's six-month, general assignment reporter internship. Alex grew up in Dayton, Tenn., which is also where he studied journalism at Bryan College. He graduated from Rhea County High School in 2008. During college, Alex covered the city of Graysville and the town of Spring City for The Herald-News. As editor-in-chief of Bryan College's student news group, Triangle, Alex reported on ...

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