Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Building An Agenda For Economic Growth

Rather than selling themselves at a discount -- cheap land and cheap labor – cities that are succeeding are investing in better workers, high-quality universities, quality of life and efficient public services.

So, what would should we start doing right now to get ahead?

• Investments in Universities. Universities are seedbeds for the Knowledge Economy. Cities with research universities have a head start in this economy, because they create the innovation and the intellectual capital needed today.

• Redevelopment in the Urban Core. Memphis has significant underdeveloped and vacant land. The infrastructure in these older areas has been paid for and their reuse makes the wisest investment of scarce public funds.

• Balanced Transportation Policy. Memphis should lobby federal and state government to revamp its allocation regulations for urban areas. Too often, federal funding has continued traditional patterns of spending on new roads in suburban areas while neglecting the importance of investing in urban redevelopment and mass transit. Local government should encourage maximum flexibility for the use of these federal funds.

• Technology Clusters. Wise cities develop an area of specialization within the technology field based upon university research, biomedical assets, etc. Clusters provide a competitive edge and a critical mass that are important to economic growth. That’s why when we want to see the future, we need to look toward the Bioworks Foundation.

• Local Innovation. The best answers to the future begin on our own Main Street today. Solutions from another city transplanted or replicated are less successful because they are artificial. Our best answers are our own, answers produced organically from a reservoir of innovation and creativity that is embedded throughout Memphis.

• Understanding Our Competitive Context. Memphis starts by understanding its competitive context, including market and demographic trends in the region and its strengths and liabilities. Most of all, we need to use new measures that matter in the knowledge economy rather than on the indicators from traditional economic development. Memphis can find its distinctive niche to leap frog ahead of other cities, but it must be based on solid research that sparks more imaginative strategies.

• Fixing the Basics. Local government needs to concentrate on fixing the basics, such as safety, taxes, services, land, infrastructure and schools. Governments must look for ways to streamline its structure and improve public services. A foundation of efficient, effective public services is what successful economic growth is built on.

• Acting (As Well As Talking) Regionally. Memphis talks a good game of regionalism, but we’ve never truly engrained regional thinking into our plans and actions. Too often, we lapse into a “we versus them” mentality and a “if you’re winning, we must be losing” attitude when it comes to our neighboring counties. Economic activity and innovation occur in a regional context, and we ignore this at our peril. It is increasingly clear that Memphis and its suburbs are inextricably linked into a single economic unit.

• Vibrant Culture and Entertainment Centers. To compete, Memphis must be an attractive, dynamic place. Vibrant arts and culture are powerful ways of creating the appealing, enjoyable quality of life needed to attract and retain the best and brightest young workers. Too often, we treat our culture as tourist amenities, but in truth, its value is much broader since quality of life is a chief determinant in workforce growth.

• Thinking and Acting Collaboratively. This requires a shift in leadership styles from traditional authoritarian models to a new environment of inclusion, mutual influence and community building. Opening the door wider to all segments of the community and inviting new voices to engage in decision-making is the mark of a mature and competitive city.

• A 21st Century Workforce. For Memphis to win in the race for economic prosperity, it needs smart and skilled workers producing goods and services characterized by innovation, knowledge and quality. If we are content to compete in the global economy by offering cheap wages, cheap land and cheap taxes, we are fighting for the bottom rungs of the economy. What’s needed is a team of public and private sector partners dedicated to building the skills needed for quality knowledge-based jobs, providing lifelong learning opportunities, improving the competitiveness of all workers and employers, connecting workforce development to economic needs and building a stronger education pipeline to produce skilled workers in the global economy.

• Competition on a Global Scale. To succeed, Memphis needs to develop cooperative networks and more sophisticated strategies for the global marketplace. Too often, international business is treated as an extension of traditional domestic economic development, and as a result, they often fail. Memphis needs a strategic plan of action tailored for the new world marketplace, and this includes helping business clusters gain access to global markets, finding opportunities for trade, investment and international partnerships and lobbying for federal policies that protect workers at high-risk for dislocation.

• Developing a Powerful Brand. Cities are no different from business. They need an authentic brand that tells the world who they are and what they stand for. Memphis needs a powerful brand, and it is not a slogan or a bumper sticker. A “real” city brand tells the rest of the country what we singularly stand for.

• High-Quality Eco-Assets. Green assets are a key factor for Memphis to compete successfully for the workers of the Knowledge Economy. Preserved and protected open spaces, safe and attractive public spaces, better quality public sphere, greenbelts, clean air and water and outdoor recreation are not just wonderful public assets. More precisely, they are competitive advantages.

• A Reputation for Tolerance. Today, new workers are recruited just as often from India as Indiana. Memphis is competing as much with the country of Georgia as the state of Georgia. In order to compete, Memphis must have a well-founded reputation for tolerance and respect for various cultures, races and religions. Cities known for their low levels of tolerance will also become known for their low levels of economic growth.

That's the start of our list. What do you think we should add?


fieldguidetomemphis said...

Smart post, Smart City! What a great lineup of assets and ideas for the city. A few comments:

Investment in Universities: This is a no-brainer. The budget cuts that will affect higher education are truly unfortunate. We should always prioritize investing in education. Moreover, we have tremendous research engines and very smart and capable local talent already living and working here at the universities, and their knowledge and expertise should be sought out for local business growth, feasibility and projections studies. Why we continually outsource when we have the local resources makes no sense.

Redevelopment in the Urban Core: Let's start with Overton Square. I would love to see that big ugly parking lot which is running off businesses turned into a park, with landscaping and grass and a place for people and pets to socialize. I've mentioned this to others who comment that it will attract homeless people. Pshaw. So we shouldn't have public spaces because public people might show up? This makes no sense. Homelessness and public parks are related but separate issues.

Transportation: We must have some MATA schedules and routes that make sense (i.e. not routing people so that they have to spend the night on Lamar).

Understanding our Competitive Context AND Building a 21st Century Workforce AND Eco-Assets: Look soon for a comprehensive FieldGuide plan to the Green Economy in Memphis and Shelby County. It builds on our regional assets and is a viable strategy for getting people to work in jobs that are good for people, communities and the environment. Many of the available jobs in our area can't be filled with the existing workforce because many people - 100,000 or so - have less than or only a high school diploma and the well-paying jobs require more than that. Yet jobs for people with low levels of education need not be exploitative of workers or the environment.

The best thing to add to your already very smart list is investing in a comprehensive Green Collar Jobs and Green Economy strategy. Green Collar Jobs are blue collar jobs in green industries - ones that pay a living wage, have benefits, a career ladder, make use of existing resources and assets, and promote smart growth and good stewardship of the environment.

Unfortunately we have some "framing" work to do on this issue because when people hear the word Green, they think polar bears and global warming - or cursory changes like changing light bulbs or shutting off the tap while brushing your teeth. This is certainly part of the Green picture, but not what is intended for our local economic strategy.

More forthcoming...stay tuned.

Anonymous said...

Great post, and I must say you've been doing some really good blog posts of late. It's almost as if you've taken on a secret ghost blogger -- you know, like Thaddeus Matthews has.

Just kidding of course (about the ghost blogger). Keep it up, man.


Steve said...

A more pressing, immediate concern, though one that is certainly related to the thread:

By some estimates, oil is headed up to $200 or so a barrel. At what point will FedEx, the economic driver of the region, fold up shop, or at least drastically curtail its activities? Have any economic officials and/or FedEx folks gotten together to work on some strategy to address these scenarios?

Tom Christoffel said...

Hi - Google's Blog alert sent me to this post because of your reference to regionalism. You might find some resources for your discussion at Regional Community Development News. Please visit, check the tools and consider a link. I'll include a link to this post in the June 11 issue. Tom

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