Rather than selling themselves at a discount — cheap land and cheap labor and tax giveaways – most highly successful cities are investing in better workers, high-quality universities, quality of life and efficient public services.
Here’s our start on economic development priorities for the planned plan for Memphis and Shelby:
• Investments in Universities. Universities are seedbeds for the innovation economy. Cities with research universities have a head start in this economy, because they create the innovation and the intellectual capital needed today. At the exact time when universities are crucial to success, state government is slashing budgets of higher education, and we must start thinking now about what we will do to elevate and improve our universities, particularly University of Memphis, the source of most of our college-educated talent.
• Redevelopment in the Urban Core. Memphis has significant underdeveloped and vacant land. The infrastructure in these older areas has been paid for and their reuse makes the wisest investment of scarce public funds. If incentives should be given to anybody, it should be for the redevelopment of our neighborhoods, which are, after all, the backbone of our city’s health.
• Balanced Transportation Policy. Memphis should lobby federal and state government to revamp its allocation regulations for urban areas. Too often, federal funding has continued traditional patterns of spending on new roads in suburban areas while neglecting the importance of investing in urban redevelopment and mass transit. Local government should encourage maximum flexibility for the use of these federal funds.
• Technology Clusters. Wise cities develop an area of specialization within the technology field based upon university research, biomedical assets, etc. Clusters provide a competitive edge and a critical mass that are important to economic growth. That’s why when we want to see the future, we need to look toward the Bioworks Foundation.
• Local Innovation. The best answers to the future begin on our own Main Street today. Solutions from another city transplanted or replicated are less successful because they are artificial. Our best answers are our own, authentic answers produced organically from a reservoir of innovation and creativity that is embedded in Memphis.
• Understanding Our Competitive Context. Memphis starts by understanding its competitive context, including market and demographic trends in the region and its strengths and weaknesses. Most of all, we need to use new measures that matter in the knowledge economy rather than on the indicators from old-style economic development. Memphis can find its distinctive niche to leap frog ahead of other cities, but it must be equally based on solid research and imaginative strategies.
• Fixing the Basics. Local government needs to concentrate on fixing the basics, such as safety, public services, land use, infrastructure and schools. Governments must look for ways to streamline their structure and improve public services. A foundation of efficient, effective public services is what successful economic growth is built on.
• Acting (As Well As Talking) Regionally. Memphis talks a good game of regionalism, but we’ve never truly engrained regional thinking into our plans and actions. Too often, we lapse into “we versus them” and “if you’re winning, we must be losing” attitudes. Economic activity and innovation occur in a regional context, and we ignore this at our peril. It is increasingly clear that Memphis and its suburbs are inextricably linked into a single economic unit, and Memphis shouldn’t be the only city in the region saying this.
• Vibrant Culture and Entertainment Centers. To compete, Memphis must be an attractive, dynamic place. Vibrant arts and culture are powerful ways of creating the appealing, enjoyable quality of life needed to attract and retain the best and brightest young workers. Too often, we treat our distinctive culture as tourist amenities, but in truth, its value can be much broader since mining this special quality of life can be a chief determinant in workforce growth.
• Thinking and Acting Collaboratively. This requires a shift in leadership styles from traditional authoritarian models to a new environment of inclusion, mutual influence and community building. Opening the door wider to all segments of the community and inviting new voices to engage in decision-making is the mark of a mature and competitive city. Most of all, we must rid the halls of government with their “it’s not your time yet” responses to any initiative shown by young leaders.
• A 21st Century Workforce. For Memphis to win in the race for economic prosperity, it needs smart and skilled workers producing goods and services characterized by innovation, knowledge and quality. If we are content to compete in the global economy by offering cheap wages, cheap land and cheap taxes, we are fighting for the bottom rungs of the economy. What’s needed is a team of public and private sector partners dedicated to building the skills needed for quality knowledge-based jobs, providing lifelong learning opportunities, improving the competitiveness of all workers and employers, connecting workforce development to economic needs and building a stronger education pipeline to produce skilled workers in the global economy.
• Competition on a Global Scale. To succeed, Memphis needs to develop cooperative networks and more sophisticated strategies for the global marketplace. Too often, international business is treated as an extension of traditional domestic economic development, and as a result, they often fail. Memphis needs a strategic plan of action tailored for the new world marketplace, and this includes helping business clusters gain access to global markets, finding opportunities for trade, investment and international partnerships and lobbying for federal policies that protect workers at high-risk for dislocation.
• High-Quality Eco-Assets. Preserved and protected open spaces, safe and attractive public spaces, better quality public sphere, greenbelts, clean air and water and outdoor recreation are not just wonderful public assets. More precisely, they are competitive advantages. Most of all, neighborhood parks must be treated as the heart and soul of our green assets.
• A Reputation for Tolerance. Today, new workers are recruited just as often from India as Indiana. Memphis is competing as much with the country of Georgia as the state of Georgia. In order to compete, Memphis must have a well-founded reputation for tolerance and respect for various cultures, races and religions. Cities known for their low levels of tolerance also become known for their low levels of economic growth.
Part Four of a series about economic development.