Never elected, Paul Young seeks to maximize insider view of government in Memphis mayoral race

Collins Chapel Connectional Hospital sat closed and empty for almost 50 years.

But leaders in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, which built the hospital for Black Memphians in 1910, wanted to see the property reopen and in use once again.

It took Paul Young, then director of housing and community development for the city of Memphis, making a connection between the CME and Room in the Inn–Memphis to bring that property back to life, and today it serves as a Family Inn and recuperative care center for people experiencing homelessness.

Now, Young, 43 years old and currently the president of the Downtown Memphis Commission, is focusing his years of experience as a city planner and engineer on a new goal: running for Memphis mayor.

“As someone who is a city planner and has been working in this community and in our neighborhoods for the past 20 years, I’m someone that works to make the puzzle pieces and the community fit to create a better life for the residents in our neighborhoods,” Young told The Commercial Appeal in an interview. “As a city planner, we are trained on how to address those issues and how to take the concerns of the public and translate it into public policy and translate it into action on behalf of the people, and so I think I’m perfectly poised (for this role).”

Widely considered one of the frontrunners in the Oct. 5 election for a new Memphis mayor, Young is the clear frontrunner when it comes to funding: His campaign raised $254,000 in the second quarter of 2023 alone, bringing their balance to $597,000.

His campaign has been marked by Young’s insistence that he stay above the fray, even when faced with criticism, and strong involvement from his family, who are deeply steeped in public service in Memphis.

Paul Young, president and CEO of the Downtown Memphis Commission and a mayoral candidate, poses for a portrait in his campaign headquarters in Memphis, Tenn., on Monday, July 24, 2023.

‘Coordinator of coalitions’

Growing up in Oakhaven as a “preacher’s kid,” Young saw something of himself in the character of Dwayne Wayne from “A Different World.” Wayne wore glasses and ended up with the pretty girl — he was “cool,” but also an engineer.

Following in the footsteps of that television character led Young to engineering school.

Later, when Young realized that he didn’t love engineering, he heard a sermon preached by his mother on “the purpose-driven life.”

“God’s purpose for your life will always be about someone else,” Young recalled his mother preaching.

He took that and decided he wanted to rebuild neighborhoods, going on to study city and regional planning at the University of Memphis.

Since then, Young has worked to develop affordable housing, invest in the Historic Melrose High School and establish the city’s first Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

As head of the DMC, Young has been responsible for an organization that grants hundreds of millions worth of incentives every year, seeking to draw development and businesses to Memphis. In recent years, those have included tax breaks for projects like the new Hyatt hotels at One Beale as well as grants to help small businesses launch or expand.

There’s also his work on Collins Chapel, which gained him a supporter in Bishop Henry Williamson Sr., retired bishop of CME’s First Episcopal District.

Williamson, who attended Young’s campaign launch party, called Young a “coordinator of coalitions” and a “tremendous resource in getting the job done.”

“He is a bridge builder between parties, races and also between Memphis and Nashville, the governor’s office,” Williamson said. “We need as the largest city, resources from both city, county and federal. He knows those and knows how to bring those parties together and therefore bring the resources together, therefore making Memphis a much better city and a safer city.”

For Young’s part, he cites Collins Chapel as well as Historic Melrose as some of his greatest successes.

In the case of Melrose, the building had been vacant for 40 years. Now, there is a movement to convert it into a library and genealogy center with a focus on African-American genealogy. There will also be senior housing units.

Never elected, Young knows government behind-the-scenes

While Young has long been intimately familiar with local government, he’s never held elected office.

And, having spent six years in current Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration, he’s having to strike a balance of acknowledging his work with the current mayor while also making clear that he is his own man.

“I have a lot of respect and appreciation of Jim Strickland, part of his legacy is a part of my legacy, but I tell people that I was in public service before Jim Strickland and I’ll be in public service after Jim Strickland, so I am my own person,” Young told The Commercial Appeal. “And you know, I always tell people I won’t be the next Jim Strickland the next AC Wharton, the next Willie Herenton, I’ll be the first Paul Young.”

Further complicating the narrative surrounding Young in a majority-Democrat city is the fact that Young has voted in Republican primaries. While he has said he did so to vote against former President Donald Trump, that has led to some opponents criticizing his Democratic credentials.

And while he’s never held elected office, Young believes his experiences and skills are both unique and “perfectly poised” for the mayor’s office.

“But I’ve worked very closely with elected officials and so the things that they have to consider when they’re making decisions, I’ve had to make those same considerations when I’m making decisions,” Young said. “So, I feel like I certainly understand the lens of an elected official, and I’ve been the person behind the scenes that have made a lot of projects and initiatives and programs happen on behalf of the people in our community. There are projects in this city that would not have happened but for my engagement.”

NLE Choppa (center) speaks with Memphis kids about mental health and crime at Black Men Crowned's second Speak Up event. The panel also featured Steven Sanders (left), Black Men Crowned's vice president, and Paul Young (right), president and CEO of the Downtown Memphis Commission and Memphis mayoral candidate.

Plans if mayor include preventing crime, building up infrastructure

If elected, top priorities for Young would include public safety, combating neighborhood blight, economic development and investment in youth and the arts.

Part of that would mean focusing on things that make Memphis special, he said, like its rich history of arts and culture.

On crime, Young said he would seek to find efficiencies to allow more officers to do needed work in the community. Those could include things like cutting down on the length of time an officer has to spend processing an arrestee into the Shelby County Jail or having civilians do certain jobs that don’t require an officer.

On creating more activities for youth, he wants data-sharing agreements with different organizations and agencies so the city can engage in preventative actions.

“I always tell people it’s not ‘either or.’ It’s both: holding people accountable and making sure we’re arresting folks that are creating crimes and terrorizing our neighborhoods, but it’s also being smart about how we intervene and prevent the crime in the first place,” Young said. “And we have to be equally committed to doing both.”

On infrastructure, Young is one of the candidates who has voiced an openness to rate increases to pay for Memphis Light, Gas and Water needs.

Memphis voter guide 2023:The hub for mayoral, City Council election coverage

Currently, the city is seeing decades of disinvestment in infrastructure, Young said, meaning upgrades are now needed to “harden” MLGW with a smart grid and new utility poles.

While MLGW already has millions in funding, Young said he’s confident more money will be needed.

“We have to be thoughtful about how we get it to and what the impact is going to be on the ratepayers. There’s going to be more and more resources that are necessary,” he said, adding that the city also needs to seek federal dollars to minimize the impact on the ratepayers.

Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church hosts a Memphis mayoral forum on July 22, 2023, in partnership with 100 Black Men of Memphis, Black Clergy Collaborative of Memphis and the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar. Mayoral candidate Paul Young tells the audience information about his background.

Family a basis for Young’s campaign

Ultimately, Young said he sees the mayor’s office as a chance to continue the public service he’s done his entire career.

That career has been intrinsically shaped by his family, including his parents Bishop William and Pastor Dianne Young, who founded The Healing Center and worked on mental health issues.

Other members of the Young family also engage in public service, including his younger brother, a pastor, and his sister, who works with Shelby County Government, and his wife, who works in health care.

“I have a caravan of people that really, really believe and believe that I’m the right person for Memphis, and that’s a different kind of energy to come up with,” Young said. “They’re not they’re not there because I’m paying to be there. They’re there because they believe in this and so we really have movement.”

Katherine Burgess covers government and religion. She can be reached at or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.

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