Saturday, May 13, 2006

Memphis' Best Future Begins With A Dose Of Reality

Memphis is in trouble.

There, we’ve said it. Please tell us we’re wrong.

We have traditionally been dependable cheerleaders for Memphis, but right now, we’re hard-pressed to feel like our team is even in the major leagues, much less competing there.

This jolt of reality slapped us in the face when we read Forbes’ always influential rankings of the “Best Places: 200 Places Rated For Business.”

It wasn’t pretty.

Sometimes in Memphis, it’s as if we’re the city equivalent of the frog sitting in the pot on the stove as the water gets warmer and warmer until it’s boiled to death.
We rationalize away the low Milken ranking or a poor showing on another competitive list. We justify our lack of impact on the “Places Rated” types of rankings. We dismiss a negative Tennessee study or a national Brookings report.

All the while, we’re slowly boiling to death.

The Forbes magazine jolted us off the stove.

Of the 200 largest metro areas, Memphis ranks 98th on the list of “the best metros,” according to Forbes. As a wake-up call, just consider that Nashville is in the top 10 – ranked at # 7.

Span of Success

But it’s not just our natural competitiveness when it comes to Nashville. It’s the impressive performance by a number of places located roughly between the 34th and 36th latitudes.

Besides Nashville, there’s Raleigh at # 2, Durham at # 8, Charlotte at # 24, Asheville at # 24, Knoxville at # 5, Fayetteville at # 9, Little Rock at # 22. Tulsa at # 43 and Oklahoma City at # 13. Albuquerque ranks # 1.

Yet, as your eyes sweep eastward to westward along this “span of success,” there is Memphis, mired down in 98th place. A non-player. A no-show in the big leagues. A non-factor in business decision-making.

And yet, Memphis is not mired down in the bottom rungs in all categories. We’re in the top 10 in one. Unfortunately, it’s the list of the most crime-ridden cities. Only one other metro area in the entire U.S. has more crime. We are # 2.

In the past, I admit that I’ve tried to justify the impact of these devastating crime statistics by pointing at Atlanta, which has always been a hub for economy vibrancy and a magnet for talent, although it’s had one of the highest crime rates in the country for years. Yet, I realize that I’m only whistling in the graveyard.

The difference between Atlanta and Memphis is in national positioning. Atlanta has a news network broadcasting from its headquarters there, it’s constantly held up for the lessons of its economic boom, it has the nation’s most impressive park project under way and it never seems to rest on its laurels.

Information about Memphis comes largely from articles and lists like the one in Forbes. There is little countervailing information about Memphis, so our city becomes defined by the negative, defined by others.

We know it’s not all bad news. Memphis Bioworks Foundation is doing impressive things. St. Jude’s is known for its breakthrough research. FedEx is well, FedEx, and thank God it’s located here (although it has boosted operations in other cities because of workforce issues here). There are some nationally significant innovations on public issues inspired by the philanthropic community. The Memphis Regional Chamber’s new leadership grasps the importance of our city having strategies to attract talent.

Fundamental Problems

That said, the mayor is essentially invisible, emerging periodically to announce that he’s running for reelection and talking about his legacy. Sadly, it seems that the more he talks about his legacy, the worst it gets.

Rather than investing taxes to strengthen our urban core, our elected officials made the choice to take these taxes and use them to pay for sprawl that is financially and socially devastating. In other words, Memphians have been made to pay for the policies that led to the deterioration of their own neighborhoods.

We worry about the infrastructure for a distribution economy when we need to create infrastructure for a knowledge economy at a global scale. We have a propensity for chasing low-wage, low-skill jobs and even rewarding them with tax freezes in an age when cities competing globally are doing it with high-skill workers. We are obsessed with competing with DeSoto County when we need to be considering ways to compete with regions on other continents.

We have no over-arching public policy vision, complete with action steps and measurements. Crime is a good example, where we’re lulled to sleep by the barrage of press releases out of the state attorney general’s office and the lack of leadership from the director of police. No one seems to care that the birthright for young black boys in this city is jail, not college, and that there are ways to deal with the symptoms, not just the causes. Through it all, there’s no demand for action or attention from City Hall.

List after list of urban indicators paints the picture of Memphis as a troubled city, and we continue to drop in key benchmarks.

Boiling Water

So, why did we feel the water beginning to boil?

We just attended a national meeting of urban leaders for about two dozen cities. They talk of innovation, they talk of new public policy, they talk about new thinking and they describe bold, new actions that they’re taking.

They look blankly when Memphis comes up in conversation. It’s as if either Memphis doesn’t exist on their landscape of progressive cities, or they’ve already given us up for dead.

And yet, there much that can be done to turn things around.

But the first thing we have to do is to realize that the water is boiling.


Larry said...

I think we can agree on the fact that Memphis has serious problems. Tho I'm sure we'll disagree on most of the solutions.

The biggest problem is our lack of competent leadership. King Willie plays the fiddle and the band of desperate housewives known as the city council are running is running like Chicken Littles while Memphis sinks ... all the while with their hands out for campaign "donations".

In August, we'll have an opportunity to address some problems when we elect a Charter Commission.

We can impose term limits, a requirement for a vote to sell MLGW, possibly reform the way MLGW board and CEO are selected, impose a limit on the mayor's power to sign contracts (can we say poitical payoffs) without the council's approval, etc., etc., etc. ...

BTW, FedEx isn't expanding operations in other cities over Memphis due to the "weak workforce". FedEx long ago reached capacity here at Memphis.

Among initial reasons that FedEx opened up the Indy hub in the first place was due to Jim Sasser's (democrat) last minute deal to keep the Air Guard at the Memphis Airport rather than move them Millington. That's a very long story.

FedEx was going to expand to the Air Guard's area and the Navy had already spent millions to prepare the base for the move. It was practically a done deal ... actually, we all thought it was a done deal ... until Sasser pulled that stupid stunt.

The fallout was tremendous. No need to go into all the details here but after all these years, FedEx is finally getting the Air Guard's area as the Guard moves to the other end of the Airport. But unless you want to expand the airport, there is simply no more room.

It's not the workforce in Memphis that is the problem for FedEx ... it is capacity and linehaul issues.

Smart City Consulting said...

Larry, FedEx shifted key IT operations westward because of workforce issues. SCM

No Sluggo Dave said...

While those examples are all true and righteous and correct, they are also all symptoms of a deeper seated nature of this community and region. That state of human nature is the basis for the decisions that got us exactly to this point.

We have to start thinking differently to make this city a different place. And it won't happen overnight (no pun intended). The poor decisions that have been made for decades will burden us with large debt, poor schools, and high crime for several years into the future.

What to do? Support the arts. Good art changes thinking at it's most basic. It's a fundamental change that is the stone in the pond. There are no great cities in this country without a large effort and attention to culture and the arts. After education, the arts should be the next budget item that unquestionably gets fully funded.

BraveCordovaDem said...

I basically agree with everything you have said. One of the main things is a change of leadership. It's obvious to most Memphians that Herenton has done all he can for Memphis and it would be best that he step aside. When a figure as controversial and underfunded as Thaddeus Mathews can obtain 45000 signatures to recall the Mayor, that should tell us something.

Unfortunately it seems to be the same old divide that we've had in the past. There is Sidney Chism and company who are almost hypnotically devoted to Herenton. On the other side are those detractors who continually throw out the "King Willie" cheap shots.

A more mature discussion of leadership change is desperately needed. We are seeing some of that now with discussion of John Vergos or someone else as a consensus candidate. A strongly positive aspect of that is the bi-racial nature of the discussion.

Memphis has a lot of potential to offer but remains the sleepy River town fo rnow.

mike said...

Welcome to the club, SMC.

You mentioned Atlanta as a model of growth. It's instructive to remember that it was the siting of Hartsfield Intenational that was the fulcrum. Birmingham was the preferred location but the city's leaders absolutely refused to integrate the workforce. Atlanta (and Georgia for that matter) were not slouches in the segregationist area but civic leaders recognised the incredible advantage Hartsfield was going to bring. They agreed to integration, got Hartsfield and have never looked back since. Birmingham never quite recovered.

Our elected and civic leaders simply can't look past their own enrichment and attitudes. You still hear the "conspriracy theory" on Memphis radio that the MCS system is bad on purpose, to keep the workforce stupid enough to be willing and grateful to accept warehouse positions. Sometimes you have to wonder if there's a grain of truth in that.

We should be grooming NOW the generation of leaders we'll need in order to sweep away the plutocrats in place. I don't really see that happening. We have some organisations trying, but you sometimes get the idea that they simply want to replace the old with themselves and leave the corruption in place.

Anonymous said...

At least this piece is more cogent than a carpetbagging editor's recent attempt to tell me about Memphis music, which is the only thing that ever impressed me about this town. As Furry sang, "Times that have been, will never be no more." The homemade country stuff that came in to be recorded and blended with the educated musicians this city used to train has fallen to rap and pop driven by media conglomerate logistics, garbage that smells the same in every franchise town.

We do need a law and order mayor. Crime control, not education and certainly not the arts, is the first priority of govenment.

I was just reflecting this morning, practically no level of high gasoline prices will cause people fleeing the city's underclass to make different choices for themselves and their precious children. Rather, the jobs will follow them.

Anonymous said...

We all agree, it is time for a change.

No Sluggo Dave said...

Crime is a symptom.

Anonymous said...

This post is spot on. But forget getting our "leaders" to address these issues. Herenton is so oblivious to this city's problems you wonder if he even lives here. The city council and county commission are so in thrall to development interests they should all wear kneepads. Ooohh, Jackie Welch is coming!!!!!
I have a great job here, but the next time I make a career move, it will be out of Memphis entirely, preferably about 200 miles east to a city that passed Memphis 25 years ago and that has lower crime, better schools, better jobs, better workforce and very little racial dissension (of course, in fairness, their demographics are quite a bit different, but who cares).
And anyone who thinks Fedex is expanding elsewhere b/c of something Jim Sasser did years ago is delusional; maybe what this city really needs is a huge kick in the ass like Fedex moving a huge part of their corporate HQ to another city. Let's hope Fred Smith or Alan Graf don't get murdered having lunch over at Hack Cross (isn't it amazing how the southeast part of the city is going down right before our eyes?).

Anonymous said...

While I agree with much said in the post, I'm not so sure that the various listings/rankings of cities that seem to come out every 2 weeks mean that much.

For example, Expansion Management magazine came out with its list of cities most attractive for corporate relocation/expansion.

Memphis was no. 7.

Smart City Consulting said...

The high rating from Expansion Management magazine only reenforces our point, because some of the reasons that we finish so high on their lists are for factors that don't position us well for a future in the knowledge economy. And unfortunately, this isn't about beauty contest rankings; this is about ratings measuring core competitive advantages and competencies that cities planning to succeed in the global economy must have.

Anonymous said...

Yet Nashville which was used as a comparison in this thread finished first in the Expansion Management poll.

The factors that were listed for Nashville were the headquarter relocations of Nissan NA, and Louisiana Pacific.

A factor for Memphis was the relocation of IP.

My point is I'm not entirely certain that those other rankings that were listed are any more or less a beauty contest than Expansion Management.

As far as crime, I've seen stats that list Memphis as having the 8th highest crime rate--and Nashville the 9th.

Memphis needs plenty of work, no doubt, but sometimes Memphians like to buy into the worst stereotypes of their city.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous: Some law enforcement officials, notably the attorney general, like to dredge up crime comparisons with Nashville to show that we're better off. However, right now, Nashville is in the midst of a significant decrease and we're in the midst of a significant increase. But city statistics are meaningless in today's economic competitive environment. It's all about the MSA, and it's at the MSA level that Memphis is not only faltering, but becoming a non-player. The fact that we have a high metro crime rate is a serious, serious problem.

And nobody has been a more reliable booster of this city than we have been throughout our careers, but we've got to fight the tendency that we have to be Pollyannish about our competitive position. Make no mistake about it, we are losing ground, and losing it badly.

Anonymous said...

You are dead on with the MSA comparisons. When you compare Nashville's MSA statistics with those of Memphis, it's NO comparison. Without looking at any other factors, which of course doesn't happen, but whatever, there is no reason why anyone in their right mind would choose Memphis over Nashville to live or expand or locate a business. Plus the fact that it's

Anonymous said...

I have been a guest at least twice a year since 1993, and been a guest here for over a month I've seen it decline into new orleans without the culture. I once considered relocating to memphis, a dear friend relocated to what appeared to be a nice area, unfortunately looks as with people can be deceiving. She is an advocate of the Hacks Cross area, I live in the greater dallas metro and dallas is as crime ridden as memphis, the difference is that upwardly mobile blacks in Dallas can escape the crime by fleeing into its suburbs that are intergrated. Black people need to wake up, you have been sold out. You have options, you can wake up and live or die in your sleep. i pray for my friends safey more than my friends in the military and that is a damn shame.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

From a fellow blogger in need:

I went through Google trying to find anything about Memphis and the crime there--specifically what zip codes to avoid. We're looking at a possible transfer there next year (like it or not), and I'm starting e-house-hunting now to avoid the rush. In this endeavor, many realty companies want to know what areas I'm interested in (neighborhood names, housing area names, etc.) and some are asking what zip codes I'm interested in--since I don't know which ones are good and bad, I need some help from someone who knows this stuff.

Feel free to turn this issue into an article if you want--I'll check back occasionally to look for some sort of response.

Smart City Consulting said...


You'll find that the real estate agents think that every one wants to live in suburbia, and if you leave it up to them, you'll never hear about Cooper-Young, Midtown, Vollintine-Evergreen, White Station, etc., or some other cool in-town neighborhoods.

We'd be happy to post your experiences if you'd like to write something. We've complained about this in the past, but our real estate agents continue to be our biggest anti-cheerleaders.

Anonymous said...

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