Memphis manages somehow to hold two countervailing attitudes.

On one hand, a lack of self-worth leads to a tendency to accept any big idea that rides into town claiming to be the magic answer to turning things around. On the other hand, there’s the widespread notion that our seriously deficient economic indicators are largely caused by image problems.

Both seem to stem from the same place – a civic propensity to grasp at simplistic answers to complex questions.

The Best Policy

Let’s all be brutally honest. Memphis has a reality problem. Not a marketing problem. Not a branding problem. Not a self-image problem.

Yes, we all know about Memphis’ pervasive negative self-image, and we all agree that we need to be more positive and more upbeat about this endlessly fascinating, funky place. But as we do too often, we use our self-image problems as an excuse to stall action and to tackle the toughest problems before us. Other favorite time wasters here are suggestions that we can’t do anything to change things because we have two local governments, we are too poor, we are spread over three states.

Here’s the thing. Most cities have self-image problems, but what makes the successful ones different is that they don’t get bogged down in justifications for non-action. Instead, they are honest about the facts facing their cities, and they are willing to do the hard work of place-making and city-building.

Change Happens

Remember when Chicago was called “Beirut on the Lake,” and today, it’s been praised as one of the world’s great cities by countless publications.

Portland had no reason to become one of the country’s premier cities. In the Sixties, it was called a dump. It had little going for it. It didn’t have any natural assets. It didn’t have any Fortune 500 companies. It didn’t have a great university. Today, it’s on every one’s list of most successful cities.

And, don’t even get us started on Nashville.

In other words, the future does not have to be merely an extension of the present. There are ways that cities have developed strategies that allowed them to leap frog over the competition and move from a regional city to a national and international city.

Turning Around

They all had image problems, and it was in transforming their realities that they transformed their self-image. No, we’re not saying that we shouldn’t be paying attention to creating a more positive vibe about Memphis – and that it necessarily will have to begin inside Memphis.

However, in countless meetings in Memphis, when it comes time to get to the hard, gritty work of turning around our city, people instead talk about how we just need to turn around our image. Even The Commercial Appeal recently opined on how poorly Memphis is doing in attracting foreign-born people and ended up suggesting that we need to improve our image. “It seems a big part of the equation boils down to image,” it said. “Many of us who live in the Memphis metro area share the responsibility for that…We also need advocates who are willing to step into the spotlight and tell the rest of the world how good Memphis is – and how great it can become.”

Nothing But The Truth

The truth is that tomorrow, we can become the masters of happy talk, the nation’s biggest civic braggarts or the world’s most positive thinkers, but that would do nothing to change the fact that our population growth is essentially the number of births over deaths, our lagging educational attainment is a drag on economic growth that is deadly, our failure to attract young professional talent is crippling and the people who have driven economic growth in cities for the past decade – foreign-born immigrants – are scarce here.

More to the point, we are on average in the bottom of the 50 largest U.S. metros in all these categories, and we really need to be doing better in all of these areas if we are to have a chance to drive economic success in today’s knowledge-based economy.

First and foremost is doing something about young and foreign-born talent. They are largely moving to cities where they find more people like themselves. We are in the bottom five of the largest 50 metros in foreign-born residents. We are in the bottom six in the percentage of 18-24 year-olds in college. We are in the bottom two in the percentage of people who have traveled outside the U.S. We are in the bottom two in innovation capacity. We are in the bottom eight in high-tech jobs. We are in the bottom four in degrees granted in science and engineering. We are in the bottom two in venture capital as a share of the gross metropolitan product.

Bottoming Out

All in all, it paints the portrait of an insular metro at a time when young workers are looking for welcoming cities known for their vibrancy, their tolerance, their knowledge-based jobs and a thick labor market for skilled jobs. Most of all, it paints the portrait of a metro that has never had more compelling reasons to act boldly if it is to get out of the bottom rungs of successful cities.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a new bizjournals study said it well: “Youthful spirit and economic vitality go hand in hand. Communities with large concentrations of young adults are more likely to prosper.”

The five top places for job opportunities for young adults were Raleigh, Austin, Washington, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, followed by Salt Lake City, Charlotte, Seattle, Orlando and Houston. At the bottom of the list of 67 cities, the report said the least desirable places for young adults are Memphis, Grand Rapids, Dayton, Cleveland, Detroit and New Orleans.

Danger Ahead

It’s just the latest warning shot for our city, but while we at least have put talent attraction on our economic growth agenda, we still have not put together the comprehensive strategy and the concentrated civic muscle to put it at the top of an agenda anchored in innovation, research, entrepreneurship and a culture of creativity.

In this regard, the ultimate challenge is to do more than to identify a batch of big projects but to develop strategies that imbed creativity and vibrancy into the culture itself rather than treating them like something that results from multi-million dollar buildings and projects.

Innovation is largely about change and culture. Already, we’ve seen that the old adage that trends start on the coasts is being upended by a new digital world where they can begin anywhere. Most important is the fact that these days, we know what works – strong regional assets and knowledge-based networks that include research universities, cultures that encourage risk-taking, incubators, civic appreciation of diversity and informal connections between people engaged in creativity on the edges of our economy.


Sadly, state government is now hacking away again at the budgets of our universities, and it couldn’t come at a worse time. Colleges and universities are keys to competitiveness in today’s economy, and it’s no coincidence that dynamic economic growth is occurring in cities where fine research universities are located.

It’s also no coincidence that while some states have acted on this fact, making major investments in the future of their workers and their own communities, Tennessee has failed to follow suit and the economic indicators offer proof of the short-sightedness of this decision. While this is troubling for all of Tennessee, it has special negative impact in our city where the state is a co-conspirator to our economic failures.

It’s a long, hard journey to a more successful future, but it begins with all of us telling the truth about the cold, hard facts about the challenges in front of us. That’s something we can all be positive about.