Nashville/Davidson County floats in a sea of green – greenbacks, that is – while Shelby County floats in the stagnating economic backwater of West Tennessee.

It’s the graphic disparity in each city’s region that underscores the difficulty faced by our city as it works to succeed in an extraordinarily competitive economy.

One map said it all in a Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) report on personal and family economic well-being. Of the 95 Tennessee counties, the ones that scored best were in shades of blue, counties that scored in the middle were in shades of green, and the counties that did worse were in yellow and orange.

The only five counties in Tennessee in blue were in the Nashville metro. Meanwhile, Memphis, Fayette and Tipton Counties were in green and ringed by three yellow counties – Lauderdale, Haywood and Hardeman. “Personal and family economic well-being varies widely across the state, and that is not likely to change for the foreseeable future,” the report said.

Being Well

To classify the counties, TACIR identified five measures of personal and family economic well-being and combined them into one indicator of present conditions and another as an indicator for momentum. The two extremes in Tennessee are Williamson (the only county that scored a perfect 10) and Hancock (with the lowest score of 1.1).

Here’s the real wake-up call: 8 of the Top 10 counties were in the Nashville region – Williamson at #1, Wilson at #2, Davidson #3, Sumner #4, Rutherford #5, Robertson #6, Cheatham #7 and Maury #10. (#8 was Hamilton County (Chattanooga) and #9 was Loudon (Lenoir City.)

Shelby County came in at #11 with a score of 6.4 (on a 10-point scale). Fayette County was #14 and Tipton County was #19. The scores dropped drastically one county away: Lauderdale was #80; Haywood County was #68; and Hardeman was #75.

The report concluded that while the economic well-being of county residents varied widely across the state, the rate of change does not. All were progressing at the same rate, except for one, Fayette County, but of course, it’s not hard to show momentum when you start from almost zero.

Incremental Is No Progress At All

Of course, this also points up a serious problem for Memphis. As we have written before, incremental progress is not enough for our city. We remain in the same relative position, and just as we can never catch up with Nashville if we both are moving ahead at the same speed, we will never move up the list of the top 50 metros where we lag in the bottom rungs in most economic well-being indicators.

Here’s the thing: in Nashville, a 30-minute drive takes you to Williamson County, the 11th wealthiest county in the U.S., with a median family income that’s a staggering $95,470. Four nearby counties shatter the $55,000 mark.

Outside of Fulton County, Atlanta has five counties with median family incomes of more than $60,000, peaking with Fayette County’s $85,794 and Cobb County’s $77,447. In Indianapolis, Marion County gives way to Hamilton County and its $90,119 median family income. Three others top $55,000.

Here, things are different. The other counties in the Memphis metro do nothing to improve income and education levels, raising a red flag for companies evaluating the region for new operations and investments.

Down The List

Shelby County is ranked 200th in median family income, and in its Metropolitan Statistical Area, only DeSoto County manages to eke out over $50,000.

Meanwhile, 19.2 percent of Shelby Countians do not have a high-school degree and 25.3 percent have at least 16 years of education. That compares to 26.3 percent and 12.4 percent respectively for the other metro counties.

It’s a troubling reality, particularly in light of a decade’s worth of talk about the importance of the region and meager results.

It’s been about seven years since the Memphis Regional Chamber released the Memphis Region Sourcebook, the product of more than two years of work and costing almost $500,000. Intended to give form to the Tennessee/Arkansas/Mississippi Governors’ Alliance on Regional Excellence, the unique tri-state organization cheerleading the report, its 27 oversized pages of gripping graphics, key facts, an inventory of assets, and recommendations are artifacts of a flirtation with regional thinking.

It’s Taxes, Stupid

That’s too bad, because the report went to great lengths to identify opportunities for the region to learn how to work together on issues every one should care about: air and water quality, farmland preservation, heritage tourism, transportation, and workforce development. It was always hoped that the experience on these issues would inspire confidence to tackle the really tough ones — think taxes.

More and more, some kind of regional tax pooling makes sense here. Despite all conventional wisdom to the contrary, cities like Portland, Minneapolis, and Denver have actually used regional taxes as a way to unify their regions.

The existing tax structure is outdated and unfair, treating each jurisdiction as if it’s self-contained and its interests are walled off from its neighbors. There’s no connection between who uses roads, arenas, and museums, and who pays for them.

With no rationality and no imperative for regional cooperation, multiple jurisdictions claw for more of a finite tax pie, as Collierville did in pursuing a huge shopping center to get the huge sales taxes that came with it, and in the process, fueling sprawl and commercial zoning designed to create optimal taxes, rather than creation of the optimal community.

Sharing Taxes And A Future

In Minneapolis, where the suburbs subsidized the central cities 30 years ago, that situation was reversed when older suburbs were in decline and needed help. Governments put 40 percent of the growth of their commercial and industrial property tax base into a regional pool, and from it, several hundred million dollars a year are redistributed on regionwide priorities like public transit and light rail, parkland, water quality, and smart growth.

In Portland, a three-county, 24-city regional agency makes land use and trans-portation decisions and helps pay for regional services like the convention center, performing arts center, stadium, exposition center, and regional parks. In Denver, seven counties and 31 cities agreed to a regionwide sales tax to pay for light rail.

Challenges to the Memphis region are no respecters of state or county lines — an aging workforce, too few 25- to 34-year-old workers, low educational attainment, racial divisions and unsustainable sprawl. Sadly, there’s a sense in the region outside Memphis that if the future of the city is about a middle-class exodus, entrenched poverty, and hollowed out, deteriorating neighborhoods, that is Memphis’ problem, not theirs.

It is of course a total break in reality. Without a better and stronger regional platform, any economic growth plans for any part of the region are in jeopardy before they even begin.