west tennessee

The economic impact report on the Memphis Redbirds by University of Memphis’ Sparks Center for Business and Economic contained some persuasive information about the importance of Triple-A baseball in Memphis – $24 million a year in economic impact – but what caught our eye were a couple of charts that illustrated the case that we’ve been making here for awhile.

The problems facing our community are regional in nature.

Often, the prevailing conventional wisdom is that Memphis and Shelby County are the roots of all problems in our MSA.  We see it in the racially-tinged diatribes that pass for comments on The Commercial Appeal’s online edition – one of the scourges of the local scene – and we hear it in the comments by non-Memphis elected officials.

And yet, what makes our community distinctive are not the typical problems found in other urban areas but unlike most of our peer cities, the area outside the core city and county of the MSA don’t boost our indicators but are a drag on them.

The Aberration

In Nashville, Atlanta, and Indianapolis, for example, the non-core counties of the MSA drive up the median incomes and educational attainment and drive down unemployment rates.   Here, things are different. The other counties in the Memphis metro do nothing to improve our stats, raising a red flag for companies evaluating the region for new operations and investments.

In other words, challenges to the Memphis region are no respecters of state or county lines – an aging workforce, too few 25-34 year-old workers, low educational attainment, poverty, 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.

We’ve pointed out before that in a ranking of cities, Memphis is not in the top 10 cities with the highest poverty rate.  And yet, in MSAs, we are in the top three because the poverty rate outside Shelby County is aberrantly high when compared to other suburbs in other regions.

Population Relocation

Back to the charts in the economic impact study for the Redbirds.   There was one that compared key measurements between the West Tennessee counties that are part of our MSA  and the population change for the counties in our MSA. It paints a disturbing picture of a region with some serious structural problems.

For example, population growth continues to be births over deaths because there is no real in-migration to think of.  Between 2000-2010, the total net migration into our region was only 18,481.  The growth of the population from 1,205,204 to 1,316,100 resulted largely from 198,438 births and 106,023 deaths.

Put another way, the great diaspora of Memphis and Shelby County is responsible for the growth of population in our neighboring county, but at the end of the day, the economic pie really isn’t getting bigger.  We are merely rearranging the people on the map, not attracting new ones who bring new economic activity and new ideas.

The net out-migration from Shelby County in the first decade of the 21st century was 38,780 people.  The largest beneficiary in the population relocation was DeSoto County, which had 42,801 new migrants.  Meanwhile, Fayette and Tipton Counties only recorded 8,201 and 5,925 respectively. The Mississippi Counties of Marshall, Tate, and Tunica County grew by only 538 people, 2,098 people, and 494 people.

Tale of the Tape

The second chart of West Tennessee counties indicates the way that Memphis and Shelby County sit in the midst of a vast wasteland of struggling counties.  It is the rare West Tennessee county whose economies and indicators are moving in the right direction.  As we have said before, it’s time for a West Tennessee economic summit to develop some strategies to improve trajectories headed in the wrong direction.

In the context of West Tennessee, the counties adjacent to Memphis are doing much better than their sister counties, but they suggest the weaknesses that are characteristic of West Tennessee.

In Shelby County, 27.5% of the population older than 25 has bachelor’s degrees or higher, compared to 8.7% in Lauderdale County, 13.3% in Fayette County, and 14.1% in Tipton County.  It’s no surprise that the unemployment rates range from 10.1-14.1%, but more to the point, at a time when the percentage of the population with college degrees accounts for 60% of a region’s economic success, it portends poorly for the future.

Finally, the average private sector annual income in Shelby County is $47,315.  In Fayette County, it is $37,539; in Tipton County, it is $30,801; and in Lauderdale County, it is $31,157.

Serious Time for Serious Answers

There should be argument that our region is in trouble.  It has serious, challenging structural issues, and the first step in a path to a plan for the future is complete honesty about how regional problems are a persistent drag on our economic competitiveness.

Memphis rightly is a member of various national coalitions of major cities, but so much of its future depends on turning around the West Tennessee economy of which we are a part.  There is a discussion about the future that Memphis must lead, and it ignores these structural problems at its own peril.

This is a time when we need to convert the rhetoric about regionalism into a reality defined by a shared alarm about the future and giving birth to an unusual regional collaboration to find answers that are sustainable and long-term in nature because it is no longer enough to chase the latest magic answer when careful strategies must be developed and pursued.