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 for transformative change, 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.

We have no margin for error.

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

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, sustainable initiatives, and a sense of urgency 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 our list in our next post, but first, as we all consider our individual moonshot lists, we have a few principles that provide a context for them:

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 relying 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 that each of us can see ourselves in.  It’s a story that incorporates where we have been, who we are, and where we hope to go.  And most of all, it’s a story that motivates action.

3) Shake the Nashville obsession – and Detroit too while we’re at it.

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 inevitably be another number one city for the media 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 its own problems as a city and county, and 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.  Underlying it all is this attitude: whenever a new program or project is suggested, the immediate question is how can Nashville be the best in the U.S.  Here, the regular question here of how we can do it as cheaply as possible.

We have no patience with the often made derogatory (not to mention racially-motivated) comments that Memphis is the next Detroit.  Memphis’s percentage of people with college degrees is two times Detroit’s, Memphis has 40% more people in the labor force, the poverty rate in Memphis is 30% lower and household income is about 25% higher, the number of vacant housing in Memphis is about half of Detroit’s  (although Memphis is almost three times larger in land area), Detroit’s city budget is three times bigger than Memphis, and its debt is 20 times bigger than Memphis.  Yes, Memphis has challenges (and we write about them often) but hurling Detroit epithets do nothing to address them.

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 of course means swearing off the reading of comments to The Commercial Appeal articles, where the uninformed and biased 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 racists whose only mission in life seems to be drags on lifting up this community and taking it instead into their swamp of prejudice, discord, and disharmony.  There has never been a greater need for rational debate and discussion, but as we enter the city campaign city, they are absolute necessities.

5.  Quit chasing magic answers.

Memphis regularly battles 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, the latest magic answer, or a silver bullet imported from another city.  Despite media coverage that treats some cities as overnight successes, their success is almost always tied to a sustained focus on key strengths, opportunities, and leadership.  There are some who contend that Nashville’s vote to consolidate its city and county governments produced the boom times it’s experienced today.  Of course, that vote took place 52 years ago.

We have a friend who says Memphis always chases the latest magic answer – but 10 years after everyone else. We have another friend who says that Memphis is always grabbing a “best practice” from another city as the answer to our problems, but the truth is that by the time something is called a best practice, it isn’t one anymore.  The best practice of all for Memphis is to create its own rather than searching for them in other cities.

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.  That’s why we are encouraged by Chamber President Phil Trenary’s regular call for measuring success by how poverty is reduced in Memphis.

There is support for tax freezes as a tool in our economic development toolkit but no one can deny that there is an overreliance on them is creating an imbalance in taxes between residential and commercial.   Every time corporate taxes are waived, residential and small businesses have to pick up the slack.

In this vein, it’s important to understand the factors and dynamics that result in Memphis and Shelby County having the highest combined tax rate in Tennessee: it’s all about the math.  If Memphis had the same house values as Nashville, our tax rate would be roughly $1.71.  Conversely, if Nashville had to cope with Memphis’ median house price, its tax rate would be roughly what Memphis and Shelby County’s cumulative tax rate is now.  (Tax freezes granted to corporations equates to about 40 cents on the Memphis property tax rate and about 35 cents on the county tax rates.)

Meanwhile, many young professionals feel that our economic development agenda isn’t about them.  Rather, it’s more 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 second set of moonshot missions, it must make a commitment to understanding more about how local government works, the realities of the regressive state tax structure, and the need for a growth strategy that  increases the median housing price so city and county governments have the revenues to make the quality of life investments that create jobs, attract and keep talent, and expand the economy.

Next: Our Moonshot List