Monday, April 21, 2008

Future Economic Growth Plans Build On Lessons From The Past

Continued from yesterday.

In the past, economic development programs like Memphis 2005 have received widespread support from the private and public sectors, but in the end, their residual impact was limited.

The reasons included alienation of many economic development organizations that accepted responsibility for goals but received no money to achieve them, lack of the community-based support that was needed for the program to become implanted in the Memphis DNA and a tendency to see economic growth as an extension of the present.

There are cautionary tales from Memphis 2005 as MemphisED gets ramped up. Most of all, there’s the need to be realistic and to emphasize results rather than marketing. Memphis often suffers from civic amnesia when it comes to the history of past economic development plans, and this time, we need to be clear-headed about potential pitfalls.

Sticking With The Facts

We hope that some of the veterans from these past wars will talk to new members of the MemphisED team as they come aboard. In the Memphis Flyer, the new V-P of economic development talked about the importance of existing business by spotlighting distribution yet again, and he said MemphisED is different from previous plans because “it’s actually being implemented.”

We hope someone will pull the Memphis 2005 file out of the Chamber’s filing cabinets. It too had specific objectives. It too was implemented. It too had measurements and regular reports to the community. It too had broad city government, county government and business support. It too had a highly-publicized launch and standing room only meetings to report on its progress.

MemphisED is an important opportunity for Memphis, and every one of us should hope that it succeeds. But it needs to be grounded in reality and avoid the spin that can undermine it before it even begins.

Lessons From Youngstown

We were more interested in the fact that new Chamber V-P comes to Memphis from Youngstown, Ohio, where he ran that city’s Chamber of Commerce. The lessons that he brings from Youngstown could be especially valuable to our economic growth plans in light of MIT’s Sean Safford’s instructive report, “Why The Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown: Civil Infrastructure and Mobilization in Economic Crises.”

In his research, Mr. Safford compared two historically and economically similar cities in the Rust Belt – Youngstown, Ohio, and Allentown, Pennsylvania – and reached conclusions that he shared on Smart City about why Allentown succeeded and Youngstown failed.

“Youngstown has suffered from an inability to develop a coherent approach to attracting inward investment, a lack of entrepreneurship and the inability of major local employers to transform in ways that benefit the community,” he wrote, citing causes that deal with social network density, social capital, elitism and duplication.

Learning From Others

The reason that social organizations couldn’t save Youngstown, in Mr. Safford’s opinion, was that the civic organizations “rather than being forums of interaction, then, these were simply places were social status was affirmed. In the end, this may have done more harm than good by strengthening the ability of a small group of actors to assert narrow interests over those of the community more broadly. Moreover, these ties ultimately proved extremely brittle leaving the community without strong leadership when it was absolutely necessary to have it.”

The lessons of Youngstown are important for Memphis. Despite our Southern status, our city has a gritty city edge to it, complete with gritty kinds of problems more in common with industrial cities like Youngstown. That’s why the Youngstown connection is so intriguing to us, and what we can learn from it.

As for lessons from our own past, they are especially useful right now as well.

Lessons From 2005

As MemphisED gets under way in earnest, what are the lessons of Memphis 2005 that should remain top-of-mind:

• The ultimate outcome of the plan is new thinking, not just new money for economic development budgets and new marketing.

• Success requires sustained leadership and attention that transcends the initial push.

• It’s about leadership – engaged, committed and inventive – who are able to think of the future as more than just an extension of the present.

• It’s about collaboration between key Memphis organizations, not just top-down direction without meaningful input along the way.

• It’s about spreading the wealth; if the help of organizations are needed, they need the money to make it happen.

• It’s about increasing the capacity of existing organizations rather than creating a bevy of new task forces, committees and groups.

• It’s about average Memphians hearing a narrative that they can imagine themselves being a part of.

• It’s about one over-arching vision that encompasses all strategies into a cohesive, easy-to-understand, aspirational story.

• It’s about focusing on key levers of the greatest change – such as increasing the number of college graduates in our workforce.

• It’s about measuring success by our ability to leap frog ahead of the competition, not just by improving our economic performance.

• It’s about calling a spade a spade by ignoring the spin and calling the Memphis economy what it is – a crisis.

Boiling Water

Two years ago, we wrote: “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.”

As the dimensions of our economic problems deepen and the challenges get more serious, many urban commentators have already given us up for dead.

MemphisED is at least built on the premise that the water is indeed boiling. That is indeed progress. Now, we need to take the kind of actions that are bold enough to not only turn around our economy and get us out of the bottom rungs of economic performance but spring board us ahead of our competitive rivals.


Anonymous said...

Just guessing, but Youngstown is part of a metropolitan area (Yougstown-Warren) that is next to the metropolitan area of Cleveland-Akron, and neither of these MSAs, separate or together, produce much economic development synergy. On the other hand Allentown is an extension of Philadelphia's Bucks County in the Leghigh Valley that is being filled with a lot of social capital from Philly's exurbanites. Economic development planning and success has a lot to do with the luck of place not any forced creation of social capital. Atlanta has it, Memphis doesn't.

Anonymous said...

Read the study. It's not as simple as what MSA you're in. Also, there's never been a place with worse location than Atlanta. It's not as simple as luck of place. The intangibles are just as important as the tangibles.

Anonymous said...

Luck of place is more than locational, i.e. the intangibles of social capital,but location can solve a lot of problems. Atlanta still has luck of place because of the leadership and culture that Memphis doesn't seem to have.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever spent any time in Youngstown? As one who spent several years in the area while in my early 20's, there is no there, there. Youngstown, unfortunately, is and was the epitome of the rust belt. There is no opportunity for job creation in today's sense and to say they have social clubs and culture, well if you call a six pack of Schlitz, pickled eggs and a game of Pinochle culture, then I guess they have it.

Anonymous said...

I waited for you to complete your thread with this most recent post to comment. I find the alarm most poinent but a little late. As I see it the high water mark of Memphis was the day that the FedEx Forum opened its doors. I knew then what I know now, Memphis cannot sustain growth like other MSAs can, and the local business climate is hostile to the radical changes it needs to make to overcome this.

I find the politeness of southern nature somewhat to blame, coming from a local upbringing, my family had a hard time discussing the really bad things going on. Three years ago I had friends and family losing their jobs downtown because of corporations moving away, the CA and MBJ reported little of it. I found myself ranting up and down to my former employer about how things had to change, we had to look at trends and adjust. They were glad that I made the effort but my work was in vain. I eventually relocated to the Northwest rather than watch my career stagnate.

I like what I hear from Memphis blogs, but I think Memphis needs some brutal honesty from its media outlets before something can be done. I think in the end Memphis has to stop comparing itself to cities it will never be and find its own unique identity or brand. I see a much smaller focused city looking to cement business for the long term.