Friday, October 12, 2007

Question Of The Week: What Memphis Can Do To Attract And Retain Young People

There nothing more painful to us than the comments by young people who tell of their plans to relocate as soon as possible or by those who already have moved and urge others to join them.

It’s painful to us for two reasons:

1) We prepare talent strategy recommendations for other major metros, and we know how important the 25-34 year-old demographic is to cities that are succeeding today. Our city needs every young professional that it can recruit, retain or educate.

2) We may complain about things in Memphis, but it comes from a unshakeable affection for this crazy place and its distinctive personality. We can’t imagine living anywhere else, so it hurts us when we hear that we are losing the people that we need to move this city in the right direction.

Lately, we’ve seen a flurry of these “get out of Memphis” comments, so we want to share an email from irène, an expatriate who’s coming back our way.

Here’s what she said:

“I too encourage the youth to remain. Easy for me to say as when I was 31, I graduated with my Master’s and promptly hit the road for the ‘promised land’ of Portland, Oregon. While it offered a great change in terms of livability (i.e. reduction in property/personal crime and a great dose of consumer pretties to indulge myself in, etc), it had about half the soul of a city like Memphis.

“The difference in the two cities is that Portland believes in itself, Memphis does not.

“I grew up there so I know of what I speak. I picked up on that vibe as early as age 16. Smartcity is right; the Old Guard is dying off and will need replacing. Now is the time to envision what you'd like to see in a city and go for it.

“All those 15 cities soaking up the youth can't be the receptacle for every young person's dreams. Portland is wonderful, but my husband and I left when the balance of the city started becoming more like a post-university, extended adolescence and less of a vista for young people trying to bring something alive. It began to have the feel of a tourist attraction; it also started becoming exorbitantly expensive to live there.

“So, while there are frustrations in the current situation, just packing up and moving somewhere doesn't forever solve the problem. So, even if you do end up leaving, don't ever think Memphis won't seem attractive enough to return after you've seen the other side.

“As for us, we'll be back to live within the year. I am willing to give Memphis another go.”

So, here’s the question of the day: “What would it take to get you to give Memphis another go or to encourage your children to stay here?”

And to make this interesting, let's see if we can answer the question without any reference to politicians or City Hall.

15 comments:

Harvey said...

Memphis is simply a great example of a broken place that needs healing. Also, I grew up in Memphis, so my roots are here. The combination of those two issues is enough to keep my family in the city until we die. Besides those two issues, I love the culture, weirdness, and honesty that the city produces. Because of who she already is and who she will continue to be, Memphis doesn't have to "do" anything to retain me. I am a 25 year old professional with a BA in History and I am staying. My attitude is far from "love it or leave it" but my love for the city, warts and all, will always pull me toward Memphis.

steve said...

I left Memphis 37 years ago.

I still keep in touch with family and friends and through visits.

Not sure what it would take for me to move back, but beyond that question, I think I can state that really cool, hip places--and I consider Memphis to be that--may never be particularly popular or "commodified" as such by the media.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in the Memphis area and am now in Portland, Oregon (and I've lived in several other "cool" cities along the way.) I suppose I'm in that "25-34 year old" demographic (closer to the higher end ;) that cities try to attract. I'm co-owner of a technology startup and definitely appreciate the amenities of cool cities.

Memphis has changed quite a bit since I left home many years ago, and changed for the better. When I grew up in the 80's, my parents were too scared to venture inside I-240 (although this was probably an irrational fear even then.) I visit Memphis two or three times a year these days, and make a point to hang out in downtown and midtown.

However, I think that Memphis still has a ways to go to attract someone like myself. I suppose I am somewhat partial to the "consumer pretties" the other expatriate mentioned. How many 24-hour coffee houses does Memphis have? I know of six, here. (And I'm not talking about Waffle House or CK's.) How many pubs in Memphis brew their own beer? There are dozens here. (Granted, if you're looking for good BBQ here, you're out of luck.)

Also, as someone starting a technology business, it helps to be in an area where the industry is established. There are tons of startups around here, I could fill my calendar with all the events they have here for people to network and discuss the industry and business over coffee and beer, and it helps to be close to my customers (e.g., Intel, etc.). There is also VC funding available here (although not at the levels of Silicon Valley.) Also, when you're burning the midnight oil trying to start a company, those aforementioned 24-hour coffee houses can come in handy. ;)

I still have family in the Memphis area, and that would be the primary draw when considering a return to Memphis. As far as friends, though, only one of my friends from the old days is still in Memphis, and he's planning on splitting town. I have to admit that we're probably part of the problem. It's a catch-22. I do feel a small bit guilty about this.

A plus for Memphis is that a city with potential is exactly the sort of place where you want to buy real estate, before it becomes a city which has realized its potential and the prices go through the roof. So, save me one of those downtown condos. :)

Sorry for the long-winded post. Evaluating places to live is something I've thought about a lot, and I could go on for hours and hours.

irène said...

I am the woman who wrote the post mentioned above and I have to respond that I miss the consumer pretties as much as the next person that Portland provided me, particularly the coffee and clothing! What I would give for just one Stumptown latte tonight!

However, my point for staying or returning to a city like Memphis is that someone interested in starting a fantastic cafe, small restaurant, their own small clothing or home design boutique would not just be another drop in the bucket at this stage, which is exciting to someone like me who would like to give that a shot but was virtually shut out in a place like Portland.

Portland is beginning to max out in many ways and while it will always be leaps and bounds more advanced than cities like Memphis in some ways, it is reaching a tipping point with how many more young people can afford to realize their creative and commercial dreams. The price of success, I suppose.

David Simmons said...

irène:

I agree 100%.

It's funny that you should mention that, since the New York Times recently had a story about how Portland is becoming a food mecca for the reasons you describe -- people find it hard to do something new in places like New York City which are "maxed out" -- the barrier to entry is too high. Portland is definitely moving towards this "maxed out" state now, and a city like Memphis would be a great place to start something new.

(I'm the "anonymous" poster from above...)

Anonymous said...

I've pretty much done my thing and am approaching retirement and the house at Pickwick looks pretty good for the final run. My life memories are here and family is all buried here so that's hard to leave. But my sons see no opportunity here. One is a research scientist. The other is a planner. If they would return, I would definitely stay. It would really help if the college/university communities in Memphis were vigorous. Rhodes is so muted for the past several years, and LeMoyne is now pulling on the taxpayer's nickel instead of creating energy. Getting a BioTech Center up and running in a meaningful way - growing the St.Jude research thing would also be something around which young people could coalesce. Getting some energy into the Art College would be a help.

I don't like to think about it. It makes me sad - the gap from here to there seems huge. Daunting.

Anonymous said...

I am a 32 year old woman. I moved to Memphis two years ago from Seattle for a job. I don't feel comfortable revealing what I do for a living but it is a fairly unusual niche kind of career. In Seattle, I lived with my boyfriend, who worked in the computer industry. He was prepared to move to Memphis with me and we had been talking about marriage. But it proved impossible for him to find a job here that wasn't a huge step down career-wise. As the date of our move got closer and closer, he got more and more depressed. In the end I felt that I couldn't ask him to follow me across the country and sacrifice so much that he had built for himself in Seattle. So he didn't come with me, and six months later our relationship fell apart under the pressure of distance and the tension that had built up during this very stressful period.

I don't hate Memphis but I have a lot of bitterness about this place that shattered the love of my life. And it wouldn't make any sense for him (or for people like him) to move here - the social circles we moved in in Seattle, the opportunities that existed for him, they're not here. Period. When I express frustration about this, I am often shot down by Memphis boosters who tell me that I want Memphis to be just like everywhere else, that I want gentrification via the information technology sector. To me this comes off like Memphis has a giant chip on its shoulder and refuses to recognize reality. It's not one or the other. It's not computer industry OR authentic local culture. Seattle was a wonderfully diverse and creative place, it wasn't just a bunch of internet nerds. I think Memphians try to defend themselves by imagining that they are some kind of bold and authentic resistance against this homogenizing "consumer pretty" culture that comes with 20 and 30-something hipsters, but this is a self-justifying self-delusion. Memphis seems a lot more homogenous and stagnant to me than Seattle ever did.

If Memphis is going to attract young people, then, it needs first of all to drop the chip on its shoulder and be willing to emulate the successes of other places. Secondly it needs GOOD jobs. Jobs that people with college and advanced and specialized degrees want. I guess the biotech sector is the great hope of Memphis then. Third Memphis needs to stop living in the past. Before I moved to Memphis all of my friends in Seattle would tease me and my boyfriend about Elvis all the time. It was the only thing anyone knew about Memphis. Elvis doesn't appeal to 28 year olds, sorry. If Memphis keeps selling itself based on the past, the only people who will ever come here are elderly tourists. It needs to change its image drastically, to start selling the PRESENT: Goner Records and Shangri-La and the Hi-Tone, the surprisingly good theater scene, the growing scene of local directors and people involved in movies...you wouldn't even know these things exist from the way that Memphis sells itself to the outside world. Fourth and most obviously but most impossibly Memphis needs to do something about poverty and crime. I don't know what, but I guarantee that when 28 year olds read that Memphis is ranked #1 in violent crime, they don't think to themselves "I can't wait to move there!"

I wish Memphis the best of luck, but I'm not staying, and I don't think I will ever be able to overcome the bitterness that this place has instilled in me.

irène said...

to the last anonymous..

I won't address the personal bitterness comments as I don't think it would be at all appropriate, but I do agree with you about the "chip on its shoulder" comment. This is a direct symptom of the defensiveness that results from Memphis truly not believing in itself. Many people there are more comfortable staying in the negative status quo rather than coping with the "daunting" nature of change.

I think many people in Memphis long for the oft-mentioned "consumer pretties" (wow, I coined a phrase!) and look forward to trying to establish that in the city. Maybe you haven't met many of them; I know you're coming up against it with the plentiful naysayers.

I am one of those who wants to try out what I have seen in Portland etc, however, and think that Memphis can begin to support some of that, as it already is with some of the small businesses created by 20-30 somethings in C-Y.

Seattle is a much larger city and had a huge leg up on Memphis; not saying that Memphis can't respect and learn from cities like Seattle/Portland, however, of course they can. But to compare the two is unfair. Also, I was recently in Seattle and many creative small businesses that had been opened within the last 5 years had closed due to the expense of operating them in that city.

I am rambling, now, but I suppose all I saying now and forever is that there are negatives on either side.

memphisj said...

I appreciate the fact that the anon 32 yr old female finally mentioned the poverty of the city. The fact that never gets mentioned in these discussions is that in the past 6 years median black income has dropped 7.5 percent nationally. This city is 60 percent or thereabouts african american, what do you think that does to our local economy?
All the amenities of restaurants, cool pretties etc. aren't going to help this community pull out of its problems. Memphis wears its racism on its sleeve, moreso than most places in the south, and its killing us. If you want Memphis to be better, cooler, have more job opportunities you'd better be prepared to deal with this issue first, stay and help alleviate/address that regardless of your own economic situation or nothing will change.
I get frustrated too, this last election and the lack of progressive thinking in this city is maddening, but there's nothing to be taken from here unless one is willing to roll up their sleeves and help figure out how to bring those things that you yourself can contribute. You can always order cool pretties from the internet, and brew coffee at home anytime. Seattle and Portland don't really need more progressive thinking, but we sure as hell do.

Anonymous said...

i can answer this question from experience. this is not an easy question to answer given the lens many memphians wear when looking at their city. i'll try to give some personal background as well as some cognitive reasoning on the subject.

my wife and i are transplants and we have been here six years. we both have graduate degrees, no family in memphis or the region, the job that transplanted me here i left about a year ago and we have never thought about leaving. she will be graduating in december with a second graduate degree, she attends U of M, she has been repeatedly told to leave memphis by her college professors. the reasons cited for leaving include, you would be wasting talent because of the cronyism in city hall to memphis lacks opportunities for career growth. i also work for one of the fortune 500 companies in memphis and my workgroup and i are all transports with graduate degrees. i live in cooper-young and they all live in collierville. when i was first transferred the relocation services told us that we did not want to live in memphis because of the crime. realtors would not show us properties inside of the loop; we were moving from a midwest city in a neighborhood close to downtown and wanted the same. after a year of living in arlington, my wife and i bought a house in cy and have been happy ever since. the two experiences are totally different in cy we have everything a healthy community needs, safe streets, good housing stock, restaurants and shopping, close to downtown and work. we also have a caveat, in the neighborhood, the people that chose to live in cy are like-minded individuals that young people can relate with, even our older neighbors are more progressive than most memphians. my wife and i realize memphis has problems but so does every city. i am a former consultant and i have dragged my wife to three cities since we have been dating and we thought memphis would be one of the cities that we settled in for a couple of years and would be off to another city. when it came time to leave this city and move to the next, i left my company and found employment in memphis. granted i made a sacrifice with pay but i didn't need a huge salary since the cost of living is great, i do not have all of the responsibilities i had with my old career, those will come but i am infinitely happy with my choice.
memphis has all of the assets of a great city but - progressive thought - is not one. also, there is a mentality (self mutilation) i have come to phrase it, that memphis is so bad and the sky is falling. the only people that don't see this as a great city are the ones who were born and raised here. to answer the question of "what will it take", there are many, i'll outline a "good start":

memphis attracts a significant number of people in this are group. the one's with promise leave because of several reasons but my suggestions are framed on retention rather than attraction.

first, memphis needs a re-lo service that specializes in downtown and midtown. mainly midtown. many of the re-lo services move young people to collierville and germantown and scare people with crime and school drop-out rates. if we get more professionals inside the loop they will be less likely to leave. midtown is the perfect place to raise a family which is why people move to the suburbs. how many times have you heard we loved our neighborhood but...?

second, memphis needs to identify small companies that need support to grow and get them the support. memphis needs to identify growing companies and industries and provide capital and incentives for the company to invest inside the loop. i am originally from miami, miami used tax dollars, angel investing from large companies and high-net worth individuals, tax credits and low interest loans to fuel small companies. miami also set-up support by creating synergy for these companies, ceo roundtables, specialized job training, and networking with larger companies to help these businesses succeed. memphis need a similiar initiative. the younger generation is more entrepreneurial and many do not want to work for large companies and memphis does not have alot of medium and small companies to work for. it is a big hole in our economic development strategy.

third, memphis needs to get young people involved. in cy we have a groups of young people that meet socially, there is a young mom's group, drinking liberally, many mpact meetings are here. i think this was the key for my wife and i. once we plugged into the social network and saw all the young people that wanted this town to be better, we felt right at home. it becomes harder to leave if you are socially invested, for young people homes are easy to sell and jobs, careers can be replaced but the social ties are ever-lasting. i know, we have sold several houses in other cities, young people do not view home ownership like our elders.

fourth, memphis needs to establish a midtown development authority. midtown and memphis is ripe for a creative movement but needs the infrastructure. by creative i mean, the arts, music, creative business such as design and interactive marketing, e-business suites, technology companies and all the business development that supports these businesses.

fifth, memphis needs to move the responsibility of charter schools to the mayor's office. the mayor (not this one, think futuristic) would be able to quickly approve charters and hold them more accountable. it also removes the bias and barriers of having to get approval through the school board. bottom line: we can teach students more accelerated work and steer the training to high priority fields, such as bio-tech, technology, etc...

sixth, memphis needs to establish a greenline and fund the development. this effort should not come from the city but a quasi-governmental authority that can get the job done.

last but not least, get a new approach for sentencing criminals. non-violent offenders should be sentenced to diversion programs and other alternative sentences. that way, we can lock up the violent offenders.

that's a mouthful...

Anonymous said...

All great ideas...as always - ideas - no real cut plan on how to do the ideas. MONEY is needed to stop the crime, poverty, education issues, job issues, race issues, lackluster-way-of-life issues. Memphis needs the ideas turned into action plans!!! It won't happen under the current city/county government. Maybe in the next 20 years.

Zippy the giver said...

Memphis needs to address the crime problem first. Statistically based deployment of manpower and technology (remote cameras) are the answer to that along with accessibility for private citizens and transparency.
Then it needs to address the issue of a lack of laws with teeth governing the real estate area. The possibility that if you buy a house in Memphis it will go down in value (for whatever reason) is unattractive.
Memphis is 71% black. That could be a plus.
Memphis has a style of food that is being buried by a lack of training and hygene in the people and places that serve Memphis Food.
Memphis is not Vegas, or Chicago, so it needs to get rid of that wannabe thing.

It's pretty simple to describe what all people want, what design principles of people that we all have in common give us what is called for.
People want a safe, clean city where they can get paid and do business and take a break once in while without worrying about getting shot or beat up in an entertainment district. People like food that won't make them sick, grocery stores and restaurants shouldn't smell like the toilet has been backed up for weeks, but, too many here do.
Memphis fights it's future and argues for living in the past because failure is familiar ground and success is unknown territory.
TOO many of the youth of Memphis are very clear that they have no future and act with disregard to hamper the safety of others they FEEL are privileged.

Anonymous said...

3:14

this isn't the place to post an entire plan. the question was about ideas. it doesn't take any more money (than we are currently spending) to execute any of the ideas, posted. actually, it would bring more money; more professionals and homeowners inside the city = more revenues from property tax, business tax and sales tax. your attitude is part of the problem, hear a good idea and instead of helping to put legs to it, you tear into it and have 100 reasons why it will not work. there is a difference between constructive debate and unproductive naysaying.

memphis like many other cities has crime. memphis may have more than other cities on a per capita basis. crime will persist in memphis if there are a lack of jobs and quality education. you will end up sending criminals away only to send another bunch of uneducated criminals with no jobs after sending the the first group. it will be a never ending cycle. the cities that have had a real crime suppression are cities that have economic development and an influx of capital to lift the entire city.

Smart City Consulting said...

Thanks to all of you for a truly provocative, productive conversation. We'll put these up as the daily blog sometime this week. Great fodder for thought.

irène said...

"Seattle and Portland don't really need more progressive thinking, but we sure as hell do."


DING! DING! DING! Great answer.

Thank you for that one!

(I too really loved this discussion; it shows that there are people out there thinking very hard about what needs to happen and likely willing to organize to start making some things work/change.