There is more talk about moonshots here these days than at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.

Once the Greater Memphis Chamber’s Chairman’s Circle used the term, moonshots, to describe its ambitions, it has become a common feature of conversations all over Memphis.

It defines a priority that has the ability to change the trajectory of the local economy, a long-held goal for Memphis.  Ten years ago, we talked about the need for leap frog strategies for Memphis.  Later, we blogged about the power of innovative disruption, and this was followed by a call for Memphis to focus on game changers.

Regardless of what we call it, it’s crucial for Memphis, which continues to find itself generally in the bottom five of the top 51 largest metros when it comes to key economic development indicators.  That we have been unable to move from those bottom rungs in the past 15 years only serves to accentuate the sense of urgency that we need to exhibit.

The Chairman’s Circle came up with its own moonshot agenda – high school graduates ready to work in advanced manufacturing, diesel mechanics, welding or other high-demand trades; pre-K; connecting Mid-South green spaces; adding 1,000 entrepreneurs in 10 years, and developing a long-range growth plan for the region.

Shooting the Moon

In an op-ed published in The Commercial Appeal, Taylor Berger – local food entrepreneur and a source of constant inspiration in this city – wrote that his moonshot for Memphis is to get businesses and people to move downtown to increase the density that fuels increased creativity and productivity.  We suspect that Start Co. would consider its newly released plan, MEMx, its moonshot, because of the need to kick start entrepreneurial growth in Memphis.

It’s promising that so many people on so many fronts are talking about the priorities, or moonshots, that we need if Memphis is to move up the rankings for successful cities.  That said, we need to be mindful that the Memphis economy is in serious trouble and that it will take time, energy, and resources to change the trajectory.  Most of all, it will take persistence and sustainable initiatives to achieve it.

In other words, we should not expect miracles.  After all, many of the priorities aren’t exactly the things that will launch a moon mission.   Many of them are more like building the launching pad to prepare for the moonshot, but regardless, it’s good to see such a predisposition for action.

Principled Actions

Everyone has their own moonshot list, and we’re no exception.  We’ll provide it in our next post, but first, as we all consider our individual moonshot lists, we have a few principles that provide a context for our ideas:

1)  Resist the temptation to treat anecdotes as data.

Often, in Memphis, we hypnotize ourselves with our own hyperboles.  We regularly rely on anecdotes to convince ourselves that we are making progress rather than rely on actual data.  In this vein, we often define success as how we are doing now as opposed to how we were doing 10 years ago.  Instead, we need to be comparing our key indicators with other similar cities to see how we are stacking up, where we are making gains, and where we need to step up our work.

2)  Let’s create a story for Memphis that resonates with all of us.

Memphis needs a clear narrative.  We hear a lot about the need for a vision, but we also need a shared narrative for Memphis.  When we say narrative, we are thinking of a story.  People remember stories, and we need one in which each of us can see ourselves.  It’s a story that incorporates where we have been, who we are, and where we hope to go.

3) Shake the Nashville obsession.

We understand the Memphis-Nashville comparisons and conflicts go back to the days when we were derisively called “Big Shelby” and Nashville was a smaller, less sophisticated place.   Here’s the thing: Nashville is the current media darling and getting a great deal of national publicity (which it deserves).  There will be another one city and another city after that, and while we believe that we need to compare ourselves to other cities to measure our progress, Nashville might be one of them but it is not the only one.

Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that Nashville has problems as a city and county, but it’s the booming region that drives its economic progress.  Some weeks ago, we wrote about  “Memphis Myths,” but we also have our own “Nashville Myths” as well.  From 210 miles away, we see it as a place with no problems, and yet, it also has a significant percentage of its children living in poverty, it has roughly the same per hour earnings as Memphis, and it has neighborhoods that are unsafe and deteriorating.  The CBD north of Broadway is challenged by significant vacancy, the Regions headquarters downtown is largely vacant, poor schools are driving residents to neighboring counties’ plastic communities, Dell has vacated two large buildings near the airport, Gaylord has vacated 60,000 square feet of office space, and the I-24 corridor is struggling.

If you’re looking for the differences that matter between Nashville and Memphis, it is this: there, it is almost impossible to find anyone who complains and who does not exude confidence in their city’s future.

4) Be intolerant about us versus them rhetoric.

There is too much to be done for us to waste any more time with city vs. suburbs and white vs. black  arguments and diatribes from either side that do nothing so much as to divide and weaken our resolve.  This has been added to our New Year’s resolutions, and although we know it’s hard, we’re going to work on it.  This of course means that we will not be reading comments to The Commercial Appeal articles, where the uninformed express their opinions with such determined enthusiasm.  It’s rare to have a discussion about negative influences in our community without the ugliness of these comments coming up.  In short, we need to ignore the idiots whose only mission in life seems to be to drag this community into a swamp of discord and disharmony.  Rational debate and discussion are always valuable and useful, but there is a big difference in what passes for conversation on the news articles.

5.  Quit chasing magic answers.

Memphis often has civic ADD.  We often can’t stick with something long enough to see if it will bear fruit and produce results. Instead, we decide to chase another big idea.  Despite media coverage that treats some cities as overnight successes, their success is almost always tied to a sustained focus on key strengths and opportunities.  We have a friend who says Memphis always chases the latest magic answer – but 10 years after everyone else.  There is an element of truth in the comment, but the underlying truth is that before we chase another magic answer, we need to get the basics right.  That may be the greatest challenge of all.

6.  Create balanced strategies for the future.

There is the deeply seeded sense in a large part of our community that plans for the future don’t include them.  It’s incumbent on anyone who develops a moonshot list to consider how it can benefit everyone in Memphis.  For example, there is support for tax freezes as a tool in our economic development toolkit but the overreliance on them is creating an imbalance in taxes between residential and commercial.   In this vein, it’s important for all of us who are preparing our own moonshot lists to understand the factors and dynamics that result in Memphis and Shelby County having the highest combined tax rate in Tennessee. But it’s all about the math.  If Memphis had the same house prices as Nashville, its tax rate would be roughly $1.71.  Conversely, if Nashville had to cope with Memphis’ median house price, its tax rate would be roughly $7.46 – or about what Memphis and Shelby County’s cumulative tax rate is now.  (Tax freezes granted to corporations equates to 40 cents on the Memphis property tax rate and about 45 cents on the county tax rate.)

Meanwhile, many young professionals feel that the economic development agenda isn’t about them.  Rather, it’s about low-wage, low-skill jobs.  We continue to lose these key workers to other cities and if we want to keep them, we have to demonstrate that we have a balanced agenda that is aimed at creating jobs for them as well.

While the business community is developing its own moonshot agenda, it must understand how local government works and how ultimately Memphis must have a growth strategy that  increases the median housing price if city and county governments are going to have the revenues to respond with the quality of life investments that need to be made here to create jobs, attract and keep talent, and expand the economy.

Next: Our Moonshot List