It’s hard for any of us these days to maintain context in the midst of information overload and instant communications.

So, we are naïve in thinking that readers are able to place a specific post into an overall context on the blog that can go back years.

Take aerotropolis, for example.

It was in June, 2006, that we made our first post suggesting that our community should give a priority to an aerotropolis plan, and it was December, 2006, that we saluted the Greater Memphis Chamber for doing so. While we may think that people know that we were talking about an aerotropolis long before most people here, it’s clear we are wrong.

Context Matters

One of our local heroes – and a friend to die for as well – called today because she said our post two days ago about the aerotropolis wasn’t fair or complete. There’s no one in Memphis we admire more, and because she’s involved in aerotropolis, we’ve had a comfort level in the development of a plan that builds on Memphis’ distinctiveness.

Perhaps, we don’t remind people of the total context often enough. Again, just because we said it three years ago doesn’t mean that anyone remembers it now or necessarily read it then. More to the point, the people guiding this project – and so many in our city – are largely volunteers, and if anything, Memphis needs more DIY efforts, not less. As we say to distraction, we’re sure, our concerns here generally are that we emphasize transportation here at the expense of all the other elements that make cities successful. That does not mean that we are opposed to aerotropolis (unlike I-269), and we thought we’d made that point earlier this week.

And while we’re at it, it’s worth saying that in criticizing the appalling imbalance on the Metropolitan Planning Organization (a fact highlighted in a Brookings Institution report of MPOs across the U.S.), we are not criticizing the staff people who do their best to serve this city in such a taxing environment. And when we are frustrated about the quality of public decisions, we are not ignoring the difficult conditions in which those decisions are made and how our city’s regressive tax structure pits every one against each other for crumbs from the table.

We hear from a lot of people as a result of these posts, and we are grateful to them for taking the time to email or call. We heard from them when we defended the town mayors from charges of being racist, and it was said that we were too kind to them based on their obstructionism to government merger. We heard from one person who said we were too hard on David Pickler. We heard from people that said we went soft on Senator Paul Stanley after his confessional. We heard from people who said we hated kids because we commended Memphis City Council’s decision on schools. We hear from people who say we’re brilliant, and we hear from people who say we are terminally stupid.

Our Stakes In The Ground

If you read this blog much, you know that we are resolute on several issues – walkable neighborhoods, balanced transportation policy, new approaches to economic growth, the devastating effects of sprawl, the overriding importance of talent in our future success, DIY grassroots city-building, visionaries who are working throughout the city, the need to get the conversation right here and the imperative to address the facts honestly and opinions candidly.

But there’s something else. As we have written, no one is one-dimensional – oh, well, with the exception of Dick Cheney maybe. No, no, before you email, we’re just kidding. Along with our resolute opinions, we have another that says absolutely that no one is one-dimensional, and while we may criticize a policy or critique a program or suggest an alternative, it is not intended to be a slam at someone unless we clearly say it is.

In answer to the people who email and say that we need to name names and call a spade a spade, it seems like a good time to reiterate why we do it so rarely. We want to talk about policies, and too often, much in Memphis is defined in terms of personalities, and as soon as someone’s name is mentioned, people take sides based on their opinion of that person.

We were also reminded today that perception matters, and that people can and do read the tone of our posts differently from the tone in which we think they have been written and that people often overlay their own emotions and opinions on them. That clearly was the case with the aerotropolis post, in which we thought we were mainly reporting on Council members’ comments and the overall challenge of finding Memphis’ unique niche in a world seeking the same “airport city” objective.

It’s About Alignment

Also, we report that we were told today that aerotropolis is about more than economic development and transportation, and that the committee is paying equal attention to livability issues, neighborhood redevelopment, urban core jobs growth and city marketing. We were delighted to hear it.

At any rate, we appreciated the call today as we appreciate the number of emails and calls we get each week. And we repeat something we haven’t said for awhile: if you want to write a guest blog, please send it to us. We’re trying to have a conversation, not a conversion.

Here’s the June, 2006, post about aerotropolis:

Would someone in city or county governments please buy copies of the current issue of Fast Company for members of the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board?

While you are at it, mark the article, “Rise of the Aerotropolis,” which tells of the airport-cities that are being created around the globe. It’s an article of special interest to Memphis as world headquarters for FedEx, the corporation that invented global commerce as we know it.

The article makes some compelling points:

• Over the past 30 years, the value of air cargo has risen 1,395 percent, compared to the GDP’s increase of 154 percent and the value of world trade’s increase of 355 percent.

• Today, 40 percent of the total economic value of all goods in the world and 50 percent of American goods are shipped by air.

• Virtually everything associated with the value-added economy – technology, pharmaceuticals, medical devices – is transported by air.


The aerotropolis is a new thrust for urban planning in several world cities, notably Asian ones, where, rather than banish airports to the outer reaches of cities, airports are moved to the center where cities are built around them. American cities are seen as falling behind in the development of these centers, because of our NIMBY sensitivity and zoning restrictions.

But perhaps, just as FedEx created world commerce, it can create a new future for the area around Memphis International Airport as a competitor for the aerotropolises developing in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Dubai. Rather than becoming a force driving sprawl like it is in these places, perhaps the distinctive U.S. brand of the airport-city could be invented here in Memphis.

According to the article, Memphis already has a rudimentary version of the aerotropolis along with Dallas and Ontario, California, with Denver and Detroit planning developments right now.

Architect of the aerotropolis concept is John Kasarda, a University of North Carolina business professor, who sees it as the logical evolution of globalization writ within a city context. While parts of his crystal ball forecasting into the future conjures up the unfeeling, robotic, gray world captured in so many apocalyptic films where people become mere dispensable cogs in the unrelenting global economic machinery, a uniquely American version of the aerotropolis is not only possible, but preferable to those in far flung parts of the globe.

Absolutely, Positively

But what does this have with the IDB? Here’s the part that made us think of tax freeze policies.

The article says that “the closest thing to an aerotropolis in America today is Memphis International Airport, home for 25 years to FedEx,” adding that Memphis has led the world for 14 years in a row as the airport with the most air cargo, outdistancing powerhouses like Amsterdam and Tokyo.

Delivering the Memphis Regional Chamber’s sales pitch for it, Fast Company points out the distinct advantages of being located in Memphis where companies have midnight or 1 a.m. drop-off deadlines for FedEx, compared to 9 p.m. on the East Coat and 4 p.m. on the West Coast.

In a nation too often defined by a bi-coastal perspective, Memphis has a competitive advantage unmatched in the world – FedEx’s drop-off deadlines and the extra hours of production given to companies here.

Proximity Matters

Joe Ferreira, FedEx’s managing director of hub-area business development, is quoted in the article as saying that she “routinely juggles the requests of as many as 40 to 50 companies jockeying for space around Memphis and smaller hubs.”

“Proximity matters more and more to them,” she says, and Memphis offers an ideal combination of inexpensive, semiskilled labor, acres of turnkey warehouse space and the junction of three states all fighting for their business.

“But the biggest driver,” Ferreira says,” is the growing urge that when we want something, we want it now. And as soon as one company relocates here or to any of our hubs, the next thing that happens is that three or four of its competitors come calling.”

Fast Company says that “while Memphis might qualify for a proto-aerotropolis, with the FedEx hub providing just enough gravity to keep its customers from spinning out of orbit into Mississippi or Arkansas, few other American cities are even remotely ready to build their own analogues.”

Magnetic FedEx

So, once again, we’re told the obvious: FedEx is the ultimate economic magnet for Memphis. Its gravitational pull attracts smart companies that understand that by locating here, they get a competitive advantage found nowhere else, the competitive advantage of a longer, direct connection with the global economy made possible by the inventors of overnight air cargo delivery.

So, with this unmatchable competitive advantage, the obvious question for the IDB is why is it still handing out tax freezes as if we aren’t good enough to attract business otherwise?