Thursday, November 20, 2008

Voting To Make Memphis A City Of Choice

Memphis is not a city that is retaining and attracting young people with choices.

That’s a critical problem, because if there is a mantra for cities today, it’s this: It’s the talent, stupid.

Because there are several million fewer 25-34 year-olds – the fuel for the knowledge economy – these highly coveted workers have never been more selective. It’s a buyer’s market, and city after city is courting them, and the competitive edge for the winners in this contest is a high quality of life.

It Shouldn’t Be This Hard

Today, talented, college-educated, young people are looking for cities that are clean, green, safe and is a place where they can live the life they want to live. In other words, these young professionals have clear expectations for a city where they decide to live and work, and most fundamental of all is that they expect the city governments where they live to get the basics right.

We mention all this because of the emotional emails and calls – on both sides of the debate - that we received following yesterday’s post about the refusal of the Memphis City Council to expand the area for the recruitment of city police officers.

We want to make sure there’s no misunderstanding about our point of view. We were disturbed by the vote by Memphis City Council because it’s fighting the wrong battle in the wrong war, and the vote suggests to young college-educated talent that we are incapable of getting the priorities right – safety first, politics second.

Choice Opportunity

Today, 25-34 year-old college-educated professionals are voting with their feet, and Memphis is the destination of way too few of them.

There’s really no secret why we are not attracting these talented workers to Memphis or keeping those that are born here. These young professionals have choices – all kinds of them – choices about where they can live and choices about their style of living.

If Memphis is to improve its lagging economic position among the 50 largest U.S. metros, it has to do everything it can to become a magnet for them. We are not now.

Real Big League Cities

That’s because these talented, young professionals are looking for the “markers” for big-league cities. Some of them are recreational, some are retail and others are social.

For example, they expect “real” cities to have a variety of retail experiences, they expect to have a highly efficient public transit system, they expect miles and miles of bike paths and running trails, they expect a green ethos, they expect a beautiful public realm, they expect effective public services, they expect high-quality universities, they expect a vibrant downtown, they expect walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and many of them, and they expect a culture that inspires creativity.

So, what precisely is Memphis selling these talented workers?

The Wrong Message

Our city is in effect telling them that while our crime rate is year after year one of the highest in the country, we are unprepared to take the kind of bold actions that addresses first things first – and the first thing is public safety.

Then, when we get public safety restored, then we can debate the lengths and to which we should go and the limitations that we should add to recruit new police officers.

To us, the vote by the Memphis City Council was tantamount to spraying water on the driveway while the house is on fire. It’s doing nothing to deal with the real problem.

That Sucking Sound

Most of all, Memphis frequently acts on a brand of parochialism that threatens our city’s economic future. It is emblematic of our fatal inward-looking attitude that seems to think we are the center of the universe and immune to the realities of the global economy.

The world has changed. Memphis, as a product, is not competitive.

If Memphis should be one thing, it is that we should be a magnet for young, college-educated African-American talent. But we’re not. Instead, that giant sucking sound we hear is the movement of these talented workers to places like Atlanta, Washington and Chicago. Too often, they leave Memphis first to be educated, and they never come back.

When we read an obituary or a biography of a prominent African-American professional in Memphis, we inevitably read the last couple of paragraphs that list the names of their children and where they are living. Memphis is a frequent omission from the list.

A City Of Choice

Failing to take strong action against the malignant crime rate makes us even less competitive. Ironically, the reason cited by some of those who voted down the resolution to extend the recruiting area outside of Shelby County was that they wanted to prevent flight from Memphis.

Besides being 20 years too late, the real fight is about building the kind of city that people want to stay in and the kind that people want to move back into. We won’t turn Memphis around by force and wishful thinking. We will turn it around by making it the kind of place where families, particularly young families, want to live because it has a high quality of life, good public services and a creative ethos that sparks new thinking and new ideas.

In some ways, we are too often like the Big Three automakers. We think we are not affected by world trends. We think we really don’t have to change our product. We think people will just continue to seek out our product because they once did. But things have changed, and we cling to narrow political agendas at our own peril.


Anonymous said...

EXACTLY! It's a well known fact that to national corporations, companies and organizations, Memphis is the most difficult city in which to find young, well-educated, talented workers. Period. And forget convincing those people to move here from elsewhere. As soon as they google Memphis, they read only about the crime, the lack of opportunity. They quickly discover that most people feel that there is no hope. They figure out that most people in positions of power here have become content with letting the city stagnate. And they say, thanks but no thanks. Who can blame them?

Aaron said...

Fresh passionate leadership that exists to serve its people. Leadership with creative vision. Like attracts like.

There is no excuse for us not being able to find 200 new police recruits from within Shelby county.

Where are the parterships with the Universities that would provide scholoarships in return for equal years of service on the police force?

How about dedicated vocational training for police recruits in high schools?

What about housing incentives ( low or no rent) that would allow new police recruits to rapidly save and purchase their own homes.

The list could go on. As anon said our is leadership stagnating in their positions. Where there is no since of urgency,or sense of crisis, there is no innovation or creativity. That's the beauty of working for government, as long as you and your colleagues agree that all is well, well..then all must be well!

Indeed, the same work environment is now killing the big 3 auto's. There's more hope for them since they are not yet part of government.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with the sentiments expressed in your post - who would possibly argue that crime reduction is not priority #1 in our community? I do wonder if it would make a significant difference in our city's desirability if we could somehow wave a magic wand and greatly reduce our crime rates overnight. That would not change the fact of our geography - that even if it were possible for Memphis to have the lowest crime rate of any major city in America - we would still be located in the center of the poorest region in the country. A region with deplorable literacy rates, infant mortality rates, obesity rates, etc. Not to mention the fact that Eastern Ark./West TN/Miss. Delta aren't exactly bastions of progressive thinking - they don't call it the Bible Belt for nothing. Add to that fact that we are at least an 8-10 hour drive from an ocean and we are not near any significant mountain ranges thus limiting our outdoor recreation appeal.

I absolutely agree that we all need to work to improve our community. I would also argue that even with modest improvements we could do a better job of retaining our homegrown talent. However, even with signifcant change, I still don't see Memphis as being in the same league recruitment wise with New York, Atlanta, Portland, Seattle, Austin, Boulder, etc. unless the person has some strong family or regional connection to Memphis.

Smart City Consulting said...

anon 1:18: We referred to crime as being #1 because that's what all polls show, not because we independently think it's the #1 challenge. Just wanted to make sure that was clear.

Anonymous said...

Smart City: thanks for the clarification, but regardless of what you rank as #1 on the things we need to improve about Memphis list based on polls, I think my point is still valid. We can clean up our crime problem, vastly improve our public schools, open more greenspace, build bike infrastructure, etc. - in other words do everything that Richard Florida says we need to do to attract the "creative class", but that still won't change the fact that geographically we are still located in arguably the most unattractive region of the country to that said creative class. While I am all for making the above changes and I think it would vastly improve the quality of life for all Memphians as well as help us keep more of our own homegrown creative class, I still don't see (even with these changes) Memphis being a destination city for the creative class unless that person is offered a job they can't pass up or they have some family or regional tie to Memphis.

Smart City Consulting said...


We have no disagreement at all. There was a time when we thought that being geographically isolated was a big plus for our city, but it's becoming more and more problematic, particularly as megapolitans emerge as the unites of economic competitiveness, and as LamdaRail bypasses us, and Internet 2.0, etc.

It's a big problem that we need to address, but in the end, we can change a lot of things, but as you say, we can't change where we are.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. As a member of the "creative class" who has made a firm commitment to this city, I hope and pray that we can find the collective willpower and leadership to make Memphis a choice city - even if it means only attracting a handful of those without regional ties. The task is great and I am always thankful for your thoughtful commentary as well as yor efforts to improve this imperfect place we call home.

gatesofmemphis said...

Neither side of the 7-6 vote approaches this with the creativity of Aaron's comment.

We can fight every 2 weeks for another hundred years over a _specific_ hiring strategy, or we can come up with other solutions that have the same result. They exist.

In the meantime, I reject either party as the vanguard of a greater Memphis.

Anonymous said...

Oh, you're attracting people, mostly felons looking for an easy time.
The young professionals that come here get the hint after a month and turn right around and leave.

Anonymous said...

From Google:

Memphis Crime Statistics (TN) -
Memphis crime statistics including violent and property crime rates, with murder , rape, assault, arson, larceny, burglary and car theft data reports. - 21k - Cached - Similar pages -
Memphis leads U.S. in violent crime : Local News : Memphis ...
Sep 27, 2007 ... The Memphis metropolitan area, after coming in second last year, tops this year's ranking of metro areas by the rate of violent crime ... crime/ - 51k - Cached - Similar pages -
Memphis Crime Stories - Similar pages -
American Murder Mystery - The Atlantic (July/August 2008)
On September 27, 2007, a headline in The Commercial Appeal, the city’s biggest newspaper, announced a dubious honor: “Memphis Leads U.S. in Violent Crime. ... - 38k - Cached - Similar pages -

See for yourselves why no one wants to be here.
Maybe we should let Memphis Die.
It wouldn't be the first city and I'll write the loss on my house off for years.

No one follows through here. No one.
It's all distraction to placate.

Jenny said...

Because Memphis is delinquent in the basics, in order to help retain and attract talent, it’s all the more important for us to help people build relationships and a sense of community, to show them our strengths, to embrace the culture we have, and to inspire and empower them as we present opportunities to make a difference. MPACT Memphis is working on all of the above, and we encourage everyone reading this to join us. Let's get to work.

"Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all." - Dale Carnegie

"If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

Anonymous said...

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thanks for sharing with us

Entertainment at one stop

Anonymous said...

I left Murderville with my two kiddos (single full-time Mr. Mom) last August after 3 thugs put guns in my face in a Beale parking garage the prior December. We live in W.Nashville now and the quality of life here is incredible - I should have left Murderville long ago.

It's been game over for Memphis for some time; can't cut the tension in the air without a chainsaw. I used to be stupid enough to think there was a way I could help change it. Now I'm moving my business (a DOD contractor that can locate anywhere) to Nashville.

The crime demon now permanently posseses what used to be Memphis and is now Murderville. Leave before you have a gun in your face too and it ends worst than my ordeal did :(

Blogger is right - Memphis is too dangerous (fails at public safety) for creators of wealth to live there.

Anonymous said...

Just for the record, Memphis and Nashville crime rates are a lot more alike than different, so don't let your preconceived notions overpower the facts.