Russ Williams, CEO of Archer>Malmo, made a presentation to the Downtown Memphis Commission about 10 days ago that should be a call to arms about the forces that will define in large measure whether Memphis will be economically competitive in the future – downtown vibrancy, a focus on the downtown core, and creative millennials.

It was one of the most compelling presentations made at the downtown development agency in many years and laid out what its priorities should be. What gave it special impact was that it was equal parts philosophy and action and it was based on Mr. Williams’ 15-year experience at the helm of the marketing firm that anchors a key downtown block.

In its way, Archer>Malmo has been the equivalent of the canary in the coal mine as it recruited more and more talent to downtown at the time that so many companies were moving out.

Three Truths

It was the convergence of talent and the downtown core in the life of his company that gave shape to Mr. Williams gospel of “three underlying economic truths”:

1) Millennials will transform our economy,

2) Creative millennials are essential to our ability to compete, and

3) Creative millennials are urban creatures.

He said that it is in acting on these fundamental truths that Memphis has its best opportunity of “accelerating the downtown office marketing with a vibrant creative core.”

What’s most exciting about Mr. Williams comments is that they don’t come from an expected source – an elected official, a researcher, a wonk, or head of a nonprofit organization. His comments have extra weight because they come from business experience and are derived from thinking about new product lines, more revenues, and the factors for success. Best of all, a business perspective brings with it a bias for action.

Getting Real About Vibrancy

It’s an emphasis on action that has been almost 13 years in the making, because it was in April 30-May 2, 2003, that Memphis was on the front lines of the creative class movement. That’s when it hosted the Memphis Manifesto Summit, a gathering of more than 125 creative workers from across the U.S. who wrote a manifesto for cities competing for them.

Unfortunately, the Summit did not set in motion a serious, business-driven comprehensive plan to keep and attract talented workers (most notably, because the percentage of college-educated workers is responsible for about 60 percent of a city’s economic success).

That was then and this is now. Today, a new generation – millennials – is driving everything in its path. There’s even more of them than the Baby Boomer generation, and they are already beginning to transform American society, business, and urban life. They are also showing a preference to live within three miles of downtown, but the key is that the most successful downtowns are those known for their vibrancy.

That’s the thing. Despite our hyperbole about downtown and our use of the word, vibrant, to describe it, downtown Memphis is anything but. There are nodes of vibrancy, there is vibrancy related to special events or tourist attractions, but they are not connected or programmed in a way that creates widespread, interconnected vibrancy.

As a result, we have islands of activity but they are largely surrounded by a sea of lethargy and missed opportunities. Downtown parks rarely attract more than a handful of people, the riverfront experience is as unfulfilled as its view is spectacular, and the public emphasis is on building projects rather than creating experiences.

The Right Focus

That’s why what we like most about Mr. Williams’ approach is threefold:

1) He’s not taking on all of downtown, and instead, he’s beginning with a smaller area bounded by Riverside, Madison, Second, and Gayoso;

2) He’s focused on the core, which is often overlooked in priorities that often put downtown’s border extremities first;

3) He’s building on the existing strengths of companies like Sullivan Branding, Red Deluxe, Startco, Lokion, Archer>Malmo, and others that have already attracted 350 creative workers to his area of downtown.

It is in building on that foundation “with intentionality” that Mr. Williams says Memphis can find its competitive advantage, and in explaining it, he channels his inner Richard Florida, economist and author of the seminal The Rise of the Creative Class, and Edward Glaeser, economist and author of Triumph of the City.

Mr. Florida, who co-convened the Memphis Manifesto Summit with urbanist Carol Coletta, has said that the power of cities is in bringing “diverse collections of talented people together, allowing them to combine and recombine their ideas and swiftly mobilize entrepreneurial resources.” Successful cities are those that can create the quality of life that attracts creative workers in an environment with a level of density that encourages collisions between creative people that produce innovations.

Putting The Chips On The Table

Speaking to Leadership Memphis several years ago, Mr. Glaeser said that successful cities in the future will be those with thriving startups. “Regional economic growth is highly correlated with the presence of many small, entrepreneurial employers – not a few big ones,” he said. “What’s more, large corporations often generate little employment growth even if they are doing well.  Instead of trying to buy their way out of the recession with one big break to one big employer, politicians should reduce costs for start-up companies and small businesses. And a little work in that direction goes a long way. Research shows that once entrepreneurship gets established, it tends to be self-perpetuating.”

“There is much to be said for the strategy of focusing on the quality of life policies that can attract smart, entrepreneurial people,” he said.  “The best economic policy may be to attract smart people and get out of their way.  This approach is particularly appealing because the downside is so low. What community ever screwed up by providing too much quality of life?”

That principle is also at the center of Mr. Williams’ philosophy. He humbly summarizes his success at Archer>Malmo as hiring creative people and giving them the power to do what they do. “I know how powerful it can be when we give them the power, and we can apply the same principles to our city,” he said.

“I’m saying that as a community and as a city as we try to make the right decisions and place the right bets, we have to put our chips down on this strategy. I’ve built success in my company with this strategy and it’s up to others to decide what their chips are exactly.”

That’s why Mr. Williams said that downtown Memphis must have a bias for action. ‘We have to acknowledge the fundamental economic truths and then we have to start investing in a strategy. Place matters, design matters, and density matters,” he said.

Density and Design Matters

“Density matters. I see ‘creative collisions’ in Austin and San Francisco,” Mr. Williams said. “They prove why we need a dense urban area where creative millennials spill out of their offices into pubs and public spaces where they can collide with their peers and where they can bounce ideas off each other. It is happening spontaneously through the country and it will drive innovation but we have not intentionally designed our community.

“Design matters. We have to have walkability, greenspace, quirky speak easies, cafes and pubs, food trucks, and quirky work space.

“Memphis is poised to start attracting creative millennials because other places are overrun with these people. Memphis has affordability and accessibility and just the right amount of funkiness and eccentricity. Memphis is a great brand. We have the chance to be part of it. There is already early momentum and the tipping point could be closer than we think.”

But to succeed, Memphis has to also focus on attitude. Mr. Williams talks about the frustration that is expressed by millennials here: The vibe is good, but there is frustration when they get out and try to do something.”

Millennial PIpeline

To show how it’s done and to move toward the tipping point, Mr. Williams has proposed that Josh Horton of Creative Works should be hired to work fulltime to create co-working and meeting spaces where entrepreneurs, startups, and small business teams can create the creative collisions that drive innovative breakthroughs.

While traditional campaigns to increase office occupancy downtown have been limited, Williams believes that a downtown core-centric, creative millennials-centric approach is the way to “accelerate the downtown office market with a vibrant creative core.”

Due diligence for the concept has begun with Mr. Horton’s impressive work, and other cities have shown the power of a “work community” to stimulate creativity and vibrancy. One effective model is Pipeline in Philadelphia. There, the founders set out to create “the optimal workplace experience” in an “inspired work community,” motivated by frustrations there in breaking free of boring and dull corporate offices and executive suites.

There is clearly the potential to create such an engine of vibrancy and talent in downtown Memphis, but to change the Memphis frustration that confronts millennials, Williams said that the space and the work community have to be designed “by creative millennials for creative millennials.” “Action removes doubt,” he said. “We’re not economic development officials or real estate developers, but we are ambassadors for the creative community. It’s about the power of action and taking actions that inspire others. The things that follow become easier to do.”

Reversing The Trend Line

“We need to empower, encourage, and support creative millennials to activate the strategy and to get out of the way,” Mr. Williams said. “That’s been a big part of my success here and it can be the same for Memphis. If we build this community and move more people into the community and they are more visible in the urban core, and we have all these exciting young people filling up the core, it will get noticed and build on itself.”

In the end, it’s about making the most of this opportunity to build a vibrant creative community to move toward a more robust, vibrant downtown. “Do we really have an alternative?” Mr. Williams said. “We have to build a vibrant creative community in our urban core to compete in the new economy.”

There are so many reasons to be excited and supportive about Mr. Williams’ formula for the downtown core, but chief among them is to turn all of the talk about talent into a clear, practical business plan that can increase Memphis’ position in the sweepstakes for millennials.

In this regard, Mr. Williams’ call to arms could not have come at a better time. The Memphis MSA continues to lag in its ability to create, attract, and retain college-educated 25-34 year-olds. Between 2000 and 2013, the Memphis region added 5,445 in this demographic, an increase of only 2.4%, one of the three lowest rates of increase in a comparison of 28 Rust Belt cities. Among the 50 largest MSAs, the Memphis region ranked #48 in the percent of change between 2005-2013.

Keying On The Future

It is inescapable that Memphis’ lack of success in retaining and attracting talent is directly tied to the slow recovery of its economy from the Great Recession. As one of the regions taking the longest to return to pre-Recession levels – with predictions that it will be the end of next year before that happens – the Memphis MSA needs a jolt that can jump start serious positive momentum for the future.

In that regard, Mr. Williams’ proposal pushes all the right buttons.


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