As we prepare for New Year’s – city and county governments’ new fiscal year begins Friday – we updated our list of proposed resolutions for Memphis for the next 12 months.
Here they are:
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 it, 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 had one of the top five largest increases in murder, 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., and there, when they decide on a project or program, they set out for it to be among the nation’s best, not the cheapest.
4) Be intolerant about us versus them rhetoric.
There is too much to be done for us to waste any more time with we vs. they arguments and diatribes that do nothing so much as to divide and weaken our resolve. This was one of 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 media stories, where the uninformed express their opinions with such determined and often antagonistic 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 voices 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 between that and what passes for conversation on some news outlets.
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 with more opportunity and equity. 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.
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 about 30 cents on the Memphis property tax rate and about 35 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 that they can find in other cities like Nashville and Charlotte.
It’s a vicious cycle: local government doesn’t get the new revenues that come from an improving economy and therefore, it can’t invest in important quality of life opportunities which in turn fail to retain and attract young, talented workers which in turn reduces the economic vitality that provides for local government.