Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Smart City Memphis Suggestion Box: A New Feature With Your Ideas For Improving Memphis

A few weeks ago, we got a supportive email from Melissa who recommended that we add a “suggestion box” to the blog so readers could present their recommendations and strategies to address important issues facing Memphis.

We liked the idea, so we’re giving it a try starting today.

We’re pleased that Melissa promised to write one on the subject of her email - talent recruitment and creativity, but first, she had to attend to the small matter of giving birth to her baby.

While we await her contribution, we invite you to submit your suggestions on ideas that could move our city ahead. As you know, we have particular interests in downtown, economic development, smart growth, creativity, talent strategies, branding, oh, well, almost anything related to the vibrancy and success of Memphis.

We Begin

Today, we start with two commentaries, one by Second Strangeness and one by Mike Hollihan.

The former sent an email about the brain drain, and we asked him to elaborate. His response follows.

The other writer has been blogging (Half-Bakered) before most of us knew what the term meant. In an email exchange related to a post, we asked Mike what he would do to turn things around if he were in charge of downtown. His answer follows Second Strangeness.

Together, these two commentaries become the first installment of our “suggestion box” feature. With these features, the emphasis isn't on agreeing, but on provoking new thinking and new discussions. If you’d like to participate, please email your commentaries to Equally important, we hope readers will join in the conversation on the issues raised in the "suggestion box" each week.

The Brain Drain

Here’s Second Strangeness --

The Memphis Brain Drain and its inferiority complex:

Everyone knows that Memphians have a notorious inferiority complex. When a person moves to Memphis they are constantly asked "the question": "Why on earth did you move here?"

This inferiority complex has negative effects on the city that are far reaching. Allow me explain:

Children grow up in Memphis with visions of leaving the city for bigger and better things and never returning. Each fall, the city loses another round of its best and brightest young minds to elite colleges and the majority of them will not return when they graduate from college. Even from amongst those that go to college in Memphis, many of them seek to leave the city as well upon graduation.

Much of this is economic, but a lot of it is also from the inferiority complex in the city. You see, only the losers stay in the city. There are so many Memphis born and raised youth - particularly African-American - that are now living in places such as Atlanta, Houston, or New York. I'd dare to say that the bulk of this outgoing Memphis African-American talent has found its way to Atlanta.

What does it tell you that Memphis' own Harold Ford Jr. is considered to be "too good" (read: too smart and too talented) to return to Memphis permanently?

Replacing this talent isn’t easy.

How much of our leadership has addressed this problem? This fall, we will lose more and next year more until someone recognizes this and makes some changes. Memphis will continue to be passed by other cities that are moving forward with progressive ideas.

It is frustrating to me to walk downtown and see the streets virtually empty instead of being filled with young, talented “up and comers” and future "movers and shakers." This all leads full circle back to the inferiority complex.

Downtown Changes

Here’s Mike’s response:

As for my three things to change downtown. Well, let's assume a magic wand, OK?

1. Get rid of all the commissions and corporations like CCC and RDC, etc. Create a single Office of Downtown Planning directly under the Mayor, answerable to him and then the City Council.

2. Use eminent domain (carefully!) to create some properties where public parking (or privatised public parking) can be built. Parking downtown is a joke and to just keep packing in more events and buildings for them is ludicrous. Memphians have to use cars; deal with it. We need more space for them, rather than forced-pedestrian fantasies.

3. Explore ways to make the western boundary of downtown, at Danny Thomas, less a barrier and definer. South Main is doing fine. The Pinch District was doing well until the knife in the Pyramid killed it, too. Explore ways to use the under-bridge parking lots there as smaller lots tied to new buildings. The Uptown remodelling will catch up the area one day, as will new tenants for the Pyramid; it will just take a while.

4. Speaking of the Silver Snuff Box, I think the City may, again, just have to suck it up and take over the debt so someone will take it over. It's a skyline trademark (like the TA Tower in SF, the Arch in St. Louis, the Space Needle in Seattle) and should be kept. Folks like you may just have to accept that it becomes something attractive to the lumpen-middle class types. Getting it active again just helps the Pinch and surrounding areas.

5. Go ahead and eventually dig up the Main Street Mall. Make it just Main Street again, with traffic, street parking and garages. No better way to get people to come!

6. Build up Mud Island (and keep the name!) with restaurants and nightlife, with large pedestrian bridges back to the downtown. Keep the amphitheater and let someone who can start booking it. And to hell with the FedEx Forum's "first refusal" clause. Force the next owners (soon come!) to take the new deal. Or suck it. Make the river itself a destination and tourist spot, not Beale Street.

7. Boot Performa from Beale Street. Let it go private and to individual business owners. Maybe have a sub-office of Downtown Planning with a Beale Street focus to set some broad boundaries. Frankly, an open-air drunk tank is not a public benefit. It's not "New Orleans-esque," just sad and smelly. I think Sherman W. can offer some really good ideas here.

Jeez. That's seven, not three, isn't it? LOL. Let me add a last one: Change to a strong City Council / weak mayor system. Double the number of districts and make the mayor the administrative arm of the Council. That's a hard sell to black Memphis but I think that system is better for a "city of neighborhoods" like Memphis.


LeftWingCracker said...

Amen to the Brain Drain suggestions. As much as I love this blog, one of its blind spots is the development of talent here.

I heartily agree that we need to attract as much talent as possible, and I salute you for your role in that. However, unless we grow and keep our own talent, we turn into the Yankees of the 1980s, losing more than we can retain/buy in free-agency.

Oh, as for Junior, it's HE who thinks he's too good for Memphis, not anyone else. Just wanted to clear that up.

Finally, the next sound you hear will be Hollihan fainting and hitting the floor when I compliment him for his suggestions

I am certain SCM will get behind the idea of a central planning office, something that can only happen with a new mayor.

Hell, I can't find ANYTHING here to disagree with him on. I's better stop, before I faint.

Smart City Consulting said...


Ah, rapprochement. Thanks for the post.

You make a good point about talent, and you remind us that although we're thinking retain and recruit when we write, we often just say recruit. It's shorthand for us, but we do need to say retain to be completely clear.

As you point out, the emphasis in Memphis needs to be on both, but retention involves some serious reform of public schools. Fortunately, some progress seems to be occuring, but it's a longer struggle, and in the interim, we need to recruit some talent here. We have 15,000 fewer 25-34 year-olds than 1990, and like all cities these days, talent is the name of the game.

Thanks for reminding us that talent also begins at home.

mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mike said...

I should clear up a couple of things. First, Danny Thomas is the eastern boundary of downtown. My bad; sorry.

Second, the whole thing was off-the-top of my head thinking. I realised in retrospect that I was maybe a bit too auto-happy. Moving major-event attractors from Downtown (maybe to the new space at the old Fairgrounds) would alleviate some of the congestion and spread the wealth, so to speak.

Lastly, to correct LWC, simply because we have political differences (no matter how sharp) does not mean we can't have a civil discussion nor reach agreement on some broad civic issues. That kind of thinking is too common in public conversation and really lamentable. I disagree with some core things that SMC promotes, but it's a public policy dispute. It's not "You're evil and I'm good." Too many people fall too easily into that kind of thinking.

I failed to even mention MATA. It nearly completely fails in its mission and is merely a tool for downtown boosters, rather than a servant of the public's need for mass transit for the poorer segments of Memphis. Total revamp and rethinking needed there!

Part of our brain drain problem is exactly what Melissa notes, but some comes from us constantly comparing ourselves to nearby major cities and noting what they have that we don't. I came here from Birmingham twenty years ago intending to pass through. But I've stayed and I plan to grow old and die here. I love this city. I think we should promote what we are: a city of strong neighborhoods of great and diverse histories. We should quit looking to major metropoli as models and think through a new one based on "America's biggest small town" or something like it.

Great post and idea, SMC!

Anonymous said...

Where is the 'smart growth green revitalization brownfields core city rezoning comprehensive land use feel good big lake downtown plan' supposed to be finished by now?

or are the Rustys (Hyneman and bloodworth) not through their peer review??

just wondering.

Anonymous said...

Right on on the brain drain. Anecdotally, I know so many people who send their children off to colleges, public and private, with the strongly worded advice to never return to live here once they graduate. Most of them take it. If my kids were college age right now, I'd tell them the same thing unless something changes in the next 5-6 years.
Getting competent and ethical political leadership in this county would be a good start.

Smart City Consulting said...


Great addendum and great insights about having differing views without declaring war on each other.

Also, all we can say in response to your comments about MATA is Amen. We'll return to this subject in the coming weeks to report on a Leadership Memphis exercise.

The class was asked to travel to and from the event by MATA, and the results were eye-opening to them. We'll get back to this one.

Thanks for the additional elaboration.

mike said...

The class was asked to travel to and from the event by MATA, and the results were eye-opening to them. We'll get back to this one.

I have long suspected that many of the folks who boost or laud public transportation don't actually ride it. SMC included.

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