Memphis is in trouble.
There is no doubt that if the future is merely an extension of the present, our city is destined to fall off the economic cliff.
Too many trends are running against us. The middle-class has abandoned Memphis. We are not attracting or retaining college-educated 25-34 year-olds. We are doing nothing to strike at the causes of poverty (which is increasing) while its symptoms consume our public budgets. Our economic development strategies remain driven by real estate interests, and the public investment in sprawl results in strained city services stretched over an area bigger than New York City’s 305 square miles.
We continue to chase an old economy built on tax breaks, cheap land and cheap labor while future success in the new economy is built on quality workers, quality communities and quality investments that create a vibrant city. Our crime rate paints a national picture of a city that’s out of control and inspires the prejudicial predictions of urban commentators who are virtually united in their forecasts of spiraling failure for us.
Our 15 years of hemorrhaging wealth from our metro continues and the imbalance now totals several billion dollars that has left our region altogether. Unlike most metros in the U.S., Memphis is not ringed by well-educated, high-income counties, and instead, traveling outside Shelby County takes us to lower incomes and lower educational attainment.
And that’s just the high points of our crisis. Underneath these troubling statistics is the reality of an economy that is struggling and in the face of fundamentally restructuring in the economy returns to the same old economic development theories that created the current economy’s lack of competitiveness in the first place.
We have been writing about these concerns since the first month that we began this blog in spring, 2005, and unfortunately, our concerns have been fully realized. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that there is growing recognition of the seriousness of the current challenges. As a result, more and more people are talking about new ideas to deal with poverty, talent and sustainability. There is no question that in the future, we will need the energies and help of every Memphians if we are to change our future.
After all, other cities have proven that no city’s destiny is preordained. More to the point, the lessons of successful cities are that citizen activism, disruptive innovations, a new sense of urgency and bold public leadership can transform just about anything.
New Year’s Resolution
If in 2009, we are to set New Year’s resolutions for ourselves, let it be that all of us will play a role in turning our city around, in finding new solutions and committing to a renewed determination to make Memphis a place that is known for being green, safe, clean, vibrant and tolerant – the qualities that must be present for success in this economy.
As we look ahead to what must be our most transcendent era of rebirth, we will concentrate on our blog between now and the new year on economic growth issues. We hope you will join in the discussion.
At the root of our problems, 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.
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.
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 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 and the pace of their exodus is quickening. 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.
Finally, of the largest 100 cities, we are in the bottom three in the percentage of middle-income neighborhoods. Of the top 50 metros, we are dead last in economic integration.
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.
A few months 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 were Memphis, Grand Rapids, Dayton, Cleveland, Detroit and New Orleans.
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.
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.