Hello all,

One of my chief tasks as a journalist is to ask good questions. That’s where every story starts. Of course, there are the standard who, what, when, where, why and how queries, but at MLK50, we try to take it a step further.

Who stands to benefit? Who will be harmed? Who is being centered? Who is being overlooked? How does this reinforce existing inequality – or does it dismantle it?

The framing of some recent Memphis news reminded me of why questions are so important: When you don’t ask the right questions, you celebrate the wrong things.

In 2023, Memphis’ Downtown will be home to two new hotels with nearly 350 rooms. The Hilton properties will be part of the $1 billion The Walk on Union (formerly Union Row) development that will ultimately include apartments, office and retail space.

Most news outlets presented this excitedly and incuriously. The benefits, as reported, were clearly to tourists, who will have more options for places to stay. Among the voices quoted were developers, who stand to profit handsomely.

But when I see news about projects like this, presented as an unqualified good but with no mention of the labor that will make it possible, my immediate question is this: What about the workers?

Who are the people who will work the hard, manual labor jobs that hotels create, such as housekeeping? What kind of lives will those workers have on the typically low wages that hospitality jobs pay? How do this project and those like it benefit those who earn too little to afford to spend a night at one of these new hotels or sign a lease for one of the coming market-rate apartments?

Whose job is it to consider the workers? What government entity or development organization centers the 40% of Memphis workers who, according to a slightly dated survey, make less than $15 an hour? How can tax-incentive granting agencies require projects to pay truly livable wages? Who could hold those agencies accountable?

It’s unclear how much these Hilton hotel jobs will pay, especially because the pandemic has created a rare and beautiful moment where workers have leverage over desperate employers, who, often to their shock and dismay, have to offer livable wages to keep their doors open. 

What we do know is how much The Memphian, another tax-incentivized hotel project, planned to pay workers according to its 2017 tax incentive application to the Memphis and Shelby County Economic Growth and Development Engine. 

In its 2017 application for a $6.1 million payment in lieu of taxes incentive, the Overton Square LLC hotel project promised to create dozens of poverty-wage jobs. Source: The Memphis and Shelby County Economic Growth and Development Engine PILOT database

The Memphian, which opened in Overton Square this year, was projected to create 65 jobs – a third of which were in housekeeping and another third in food and beverage – at an average pay of…. wait for it… $22,690. Only five of the jobs paid more than the city’s median household income, which is just over $41,200.

“The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his 1964 Nobel Prize lecture.

Chances are, if you’re an MLK50 reader, you’re generally anti-poverty. It’s a safe bet that you believe workers should earn enough to live on. But it’s really easy to allow those who are most vulnerable  – the workers, the poor  – to become invisible.

The next time you hear about a new development coming to your town, pause to see if the celebration is in line with your values.  If not, maybe it’s time to ask better questions. 

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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