With one in five residents below the poverty line, Memphis, Tenn., has the highest poverty rate of any metro area in the country, according to the most recent census. Inside the city of Memphis, the median household income is $37,000, that's $13,000 less than the national average. In certain neighborhoods, it's less than $8,000. Memphis has only gained back a sixth of the 60,000 jobs it lost in the economic downturn, according to Bill Fox, the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Twenty-eight percent of Memphis' children are growing up poor.
When it comes to the challenges facing cities like Memphis, "it's not enough to think outside the box," Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. told AOL Jobs. "We have to think outside the building."
Leisure For Some, Jobs For Others
So when Jeff Krida, the CEO of the Great American Steamboat Co., asked Wharton whether the city would give him a hefty loan to bring the largest steamboat ever built to the shores of Memphis, the meeting didn't take very long. "As we say in the South," says Wharton, "we jumped on it like a duck on a June bug."
Memphis is giving the Great American Steamboat Co. $9 million, to pay back over 10 years, and in exchange the company has pledged to hire at least 35 percent of its employees in the area, many of them minorities, and contract at least 35 percent of its business with local minority and women-owned vendors.
"Cities, to differentiate themselves, ought to do something unique and natural to that city," says Wharton. "And what's more natural than steamboats on the Mississippi river?"
The minority stipulation was obvious to officials. It's a city where minorities make up a majority, and its problems are largely divided along racial lines. At the end of last year, 18 percent of blacks in Memphis were unemployed, according to the National Urban League's Annual State of Black America report. For every dollar of wealth that a white family has in Memphis, a black family has just 16 cents, reported The New York Times, in a 2010 feature which detailed how foreclosures and unemployment "have combined to destroy black wealth and income and erase two decades of slow progress."
Two months after Wharton was elected, he spearheaded a suit against Wells Fargo Bank for targeting black homeowners for high-interest subprime mortgages, or "ghetto loans," in the words of bank officials.
Bringing The Steamboat Back
Until three years ago, steamboats had been sailing American waterways continuously for two centuries. Ambassadors International Inc. filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2008, retired the three Delta Queen steamboats and declared them up for sale. Krida was president of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. when it went under. By that point, the company had been bought and sold three times, and Ambassadors International, the latest owner, had been hemorrhaging money. "To be honest," Krida told AOL Jobs, "they lost their way."
But Krida vowed to make one of the boats, the American Queen, float once again. He spent a year and a half looking for financial backing, with no success. "We took a look at the geography, and Memphis was a great waterfront city," he says.
The boat has 254 positions to fill, but will likely hire constantly in the coming years; a quarter of employees usually move on every cycle, says Krida, when they get sick of the six-weeks-away, two-weeks-home routine of steamboat living. Krida also promised to hire a quarter of each year's graduating class of the Memphis Juvenile Intervention Faith-Based Follow-Up Youth program, which takes boys who have been in trouble with the law, tutors them for the GED, and trains them in the culinary arts.
The luxury boat line will also be an economic boost for local hotels and restaurants, Krida hopes. "We're bringing 7,000 to 9,000 well-heeled visitors a year to Memphis," he says. An all-inclusive seven-day trip aboard the American Queen ranges from $1,995 to $11,000.
When AOL Jobs spoke with Krida last week, the Great American Steamboat Co. had already sold $20 million worth of tickets -- 40 percent of capacity for the whole year -- in just the first 120 days of business. Later this month, the company will hold a career affair in Memphis to staff those trips.
A Spiritual Stimulus
Even if the steamboat mostly hires Memphis natives, it will hardly make a dent in the city's unemployment rate. But it will still bring some welcome relief to hundreds of struggling small businesses and jobless residents.
"Jobs right now, all over the country -- it's really thin," says Frazer Windless, the owner of A-1 Printing, the largest minority-owned printing company in the state of Tennessee. "Until large companies like Great American Steamboat surface, it's going to be like that."
Frazer has been contracted by Krida to print the company's manuals and employee guides. "I'll be able to grow along with them," he says confidently.
Wharton hopes the unorthodox plan will bring needed jobs to residents, and also remind them of the unique legacy of their hometown. It's a stimulus package just as spiritual as it is economic. The ship's maiden voyage is in April, and the mayor already has some ideas for its christening. "We'll find something to break," he says. "We may splash it with a bottle of Memphis-made barbecue sauce."
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