“We have to get more people to choose Memphis as home while also – at the same time – improve the circumstances for the people who live here.  This is important: It’s not enough to do one without the other.  We have to do both simultaneously.”

This was Carol Coletta’s call to arms at last week’s Leadership Memphis annual luncheon.  We should listen, not just because she’s one of the country’s most respected authorities on what makes cities successful, but because she’s a Memphian who cares deeply about her city and its future.

Her formula for success for Memphis: talent, opportunity, connections, and distinctiveness.

She set the stage with statistics about the Longview Heights neighborhood in South Memphis where she grew up.  It had a population of 70,000 people in 1970 with a poverty rate of 39%, but today, its population is fewer than 25,000 people and a poverty rate of almost 50%.

“The shift in South Memphis mirrored what happened not just in the City of Memphis, but in the entire metro area,” she said, adding that in 1970, there were 94,000 people living in 42 high poverty census tracts and that has almost doubled to 78 census tracts today holding 104,000 people in poverty.

Putting All The Talent To Work

To reverse these trends and set Memphis on a better path for the future, she said the keys are a combination of education and quality of life.

“The best indicator of a city’s per capita income is the percentage of college graduates in its population, and that is getting more, not less, true,” she said.  “Improving outcomes for any Memphian improves opportunity for all Memphians, because, it turns out, that education is a public good.  We all have more economic opportunity when the people in our community have more education.  Education is any city’s best economic development strategy, but if we educate our citizens and then they take their talents elsewhere, that’s a problem.  If we can’t attract talent from elsewhere, that’s also a problem.”

To attract and retain talent, Memphis has to create a quality of life that is a magnet that holds and brings people to Memphis.  “Livability is not a nice thing to do once you’ve done everything else,” Ms. Coletta said.  “Education and livability are both essential to grow the talent we need in Memphis.”

A successful Memphis is a place where “we all have the opportunity to develop all of our talent and put all of our talent to work.”

Today, too much opportunity is wasted: 180,000 Memphians living below the poverty line, just 1% of local business receipts goes to black-owned businesses, just 2% goes to women-owned businesses, millennials and newcomers can’t get a seat at the civic table, and “when hiring is limited to who’s in your social circle,” she said.

“This kind of performance doesn’t just limit the potential of the Memphians directly affected.  It limits the economic possibilities for all of us and our city.  We simply cannot afford to let any talent go to waste in Memphis for lack of opportunity.”

Getting Serious About The Right Things

Referring to the Blueprint for Prosperity, she said: “There exists a breathtakingly specific and smart plan for reducing poverty by 10 percentage points in the next decade.  As its author said to me, the work that most needs doing is in the places where people most need work.  How convenient.

“Imagine what would happen if in the next 10 years, we could reduce poverty from 27% to 17% in Memphis.  That’s 64,000 Memphians newly able to put their talent to work.  It’s time for us to get as innovative on access to opportunity as we are becoming in Memphis on talent development.  That’s a moon mission worth tackling.”

When it comes to connections, Memphis needs to double down on revitalizing the heart of downtown, on investing in a modern public transportation system, and on reimagining our civic assets and neighborhood commercial districts to create new prosperity.

Ms. Coletta said: “You may have heard about ‘innovation districts.’ It’s the hot new idea for economic development, but you know what an innovation district really is?  It’s what we used to call a vibrant downtown.”  She said that Memphis has made it too hard for people to bump into each other and share ideas, and this reality exists at a time when a consumer preferences are shifting strongly to value public life, people-oriented transportation, and density.

“We need to identify every asset, every neighborhood that’s working, then figure out how to extend what’s working into adjacent neighborhoods,” she said.  “The good news is that we have pockets of assets being reclaimed and revitalized all over the core city that we can build on to connect our citizens in more robust ways.”


The final factor she listed was distinctiveness, “that success factor that means a city is comfortable in its own skin.  Capitalizing on distinctiveness begins with an understanding of how one city is different from other cities in terms of jobs, industries, consumer attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs.  It’s a city’s difference that is the source of its strength.”

But, acting on that distinctiveness requires confidence.  It’s a “confidence that we can succeed on our own terms, that we don’t have to chase what other cities have done – too often, with too little too late – that our strategies for economic and community development can look different than those of Nashville because we have a different set of opportunities, a different set of challenges, and we are at a different point in our trajectory as a city than is Nashville.”

Children growing up in a Memphis zip code like 38106 where she was reared have a 3% probability of moving into the top 20% of American earners.  “That’s not good enough,” she said.  “That’s not what America is about.  That’s not what Memphis is about. Equity does not sit in opposition to a thriving, appealing city.  It is central to it.”

Ms. Coletta recounted a question she asked Corey Booker when he was mayor of Newark.  As they prepared to speak on the same program, she asked: “What is your toughest job as mayor?”  His answer: “Getting people to believe things can be better.”

“In Memphis, that starts with people in this room,” she said.  “Until we believe that things can be better, we won’t act to make them better.  We won’t reach out and urge others to believe Memphis can be better and then act to make that a reality.”


The presentation last week was heard by 600 people, but it needs to be heard by 600,000.  It perfectly summed up what Memphis’ priorities should be and inspire the determined resolve to address them.  There’s no one who knows more about what makes successful cities, but even more to the point, no one knows more about Memphis within that context.

For the past 11 years or so, Ms. Coletta has been living elsewhere. She transformed a small, Chicago-based organization, CEOs for Cities, into what its founder called a “factory of ideas.”  As president and CEO for seven years, she pioneered provocative research that shaped national thinking about cities, particularly talent, placemaking, and economic integration.  She then became the head of ArtPlace for two years as she launched the new nonprofit organization to fund creative placemaking.  For the past three years, she has managed a $50 million grant portfolio as vice-president for community and national initiatives for John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The good news is that she has now been named senior fellow with the American Cities Practice at The Kresge Foundation, but the best news of all is that it allows her to return to her hometown where her insights, advice, and encouragement could not be more timely and needed.

In the announcement, Kresge Foundation’s President and CEO Rip Rapson said: ““Carol is a peerless thinker, actor, and influencer in the urban policy and practice space – her experiences, passion, dynamism, and expertise have contributed in profound ways to improving the trajectory of American cities. She has tirelessly and imaginatively promoted research that tests new ways to make cities more livable and equitable. She has worked with mayors, city managers, council members and civic leaders to test new approaches to urban problem-solving. And she has galvanized philanthropy to work in different forms of partnership with the public, private and academic sectors in pursuit of urban reimagination.”


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