Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Starting The Journey Toward A New Memphis

Continued from yesterday.

In the past, economic development programs like Memphis 2005 – the much heralded answer to solve our structural economic problems and to revive our economy at the close of the 20th century - have received widespread support from the private and public sectors, but in the end, their real impact was limited.

The reasons included alienation of many economic development groups that were expected to accept 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 in terms of the old, gas-dependent economy.

There are cautionary tales from Memphis 2005 as we ramp up new plans to grow the economy. Most of all, there's the need to be realistic and to emphasize results rather than marketing, to emphasize quality of place rather than cheapness of place. 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

Some have said the current plans for economic development are different from all previous plans because "it's actually being implemented." We hope everyone will pull the Memphis 2005 file out of their 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.

It reminds us of why it's important to evaluate our economic development 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

So what are they?

• 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 – in crisis.

Boiling Water

In the end, it's about creating a city where people, especially middle-income families and college-educated professionals, come to work and live. It's about realizing that selling Memphis for its cheapness is in the end a prescription for short-term success and long-term failure. The cities that are succeeding and prospering in the new economy are those who are selling quality, and yes, they have taxes higher than ours.

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." That's why many national urban commentators have already given us up for dead, ascribing to us the fate that awaits any city seen as dysfunctional and out of control.

But things are changing. There is widespread understanding in Memphis that the water is indeed boiling. And 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. It will be hard and it will take time. But we have the grassroots strength, the emerging creativity in some unlikely places and a singular determination to make it happen. Most of all, we have a history of innovation and entrepreneurship whose spirit we should tap into as we move ahead.

Other cities have shown that it can be done. And if other cities have been able to do the same, why should we say that we can't?


Anonymous said...

This is also a great post and thank you.

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

In the end, it's about creating a city where people, especially middle-income families and college-educated professionals, come to work and live. "

I don't buy this as a prescription for one second because this is classic old thinking, old paradigm, a past painted stuck in your face, sold as the future. You can reason it any way you want. You can collect evidence that you are right, that's what's been done here forever. Never worked.
What's clear is that none of us have a clue what success in Memphis looks like. So, let's take that out of the picture of the future and leave it blank for now, a clean slate to draw on.
Let's make Memphis the model of a sustainable city designed to succeed in the future.
Let's really look at/dream up what that is going to look like in the future considering utilities, existing wages for most existing citizens. "Cheap" definitely has to go out the window. It's a lie anyway.
Let's consider that Memphis has been designed and built to screw the average Joes and make sure they can not ever succeed/save a nickel without extraordinary circumstance, because no matter what they've done, they haven't flourished and unhappy even angry citizens is the norm here.
Let's consider that we are predisposed to accidentally do that kind of plan again and then let's not do that.
We have a start, the education system, as long as it doesn't try sandbagging it's reports or hiding them, is on track. There's part of the future, but, if you educate them and give them nowhere to grow, lack of support, they must leave. So we better get started. The longer the fat cats hold on to their money and do nothing about the world we've inadvertently created through our klepto-plutocracy, the more likely what they have left will be rendered worthless too. Gold can be rendered worthless. Then the formerly rich will be eye to eye economically and on monetarily par with the average Joes we've created here. FORCED to cooperate. Nobody likes being forced to endure hell on earth for years in an economic trap. Ask around. Here.
Don't be scurred, just let's get that new future on line.
Those college grads will come after Memphis has PROVEN it has a commitment to a future that works for everyone. Not before. A ton of bait won't cut it anymore. They will leave once they get here and find out it was all a hoax if we play our normal game. The word is out on Memphis, too late to stop stats.

"Other cities have shown that it can be done. And if other cities have been able to do the same, why should we say that we can't?"

Because we've proven that we are BS artists and not much else unless you put value on over-inflated egos. We shouldn't open our mouths again, let the proof be in the pudding.
We'll have to weed all those fat egos out or they will cause trouble.

Let's see if we get our super-efficient cars, or alternative fuel cars from domestic manufacturers, since they didn't have them in time for the big gas crunch, let's see if the city buildings are getting some vertical axis wind generators to put on their roofs or solar hot water and electric cells since the city seems to be the biggest late-payer who cause citizen bills to go up, let's see if we get effective mass transit. Those will be big clues to the commitment that people will be looking to see. Consolidation and no double taxation will be a big factor, education reform and a significant improvement in economically depressed areas will be a big clue. Getting the jail away from the welcome sign will be a BIG clue. I would make a registry of services for getting people out of poverty including city, state and federal participants, distribute it to all faith based initiatives so EVERYONE can be coordinated and get to work on that too.
There are a lot of people already working on a lot of things, but, the lack of a directory and coordinate efforts has one of the biggest and most uncoordinated wasteful duplications of services on earth.
We have to stop doing that too.

Save This MG said...

We aren't going to move forward with our current crop of leaders. It won't happen with Herenton in office or without losing some of the current members of city council or the county commission. Ware and Brown need to go. They're used up and holler, "it all about race" every chance they get. Herenton is too busy looking out for his own interests to really give a damn anymore about this city.

Fix the schools. Throw those who act up out. They hurt those who really want to be there.

Don't try to force people to live in the city. You want people to move in? Find an incentive. Fix the crime problem. Get rid of the whack-job running the show over there and put someone in who is more concerned with the crime than how well he or she looks on camera.

Take some of the burden off the property tax payers. Good god, how much more does the city think we can afford to pay?

Get rid of double governments. We don't need a city and county governing body. It's ridiculous. Let county cover it all.

Get a DA that has a background in law and not politics. Gibbons is a joke. Send some folks up to Nashville or DC to work hard at changing some of the sentencing laws. If a criminal is convicted and get 20 years then by damn they ought to have to serve all of it. There might be an initial hit to the pocketbook but I'd bet that once the word got around that you don't get parole then some of this nonsense crime would stop and we may actually see a reduction in the number of people that go to jail.

Hire good well qualified people for jobs in gubment and stop appointing cronies who know NOTHING about what they're supposed to be doing. Politicians could eff up a wet dream.

Start educating our children about sex. We need to stop children from having children. Hold the males accountable for their babies. You think you're big enough to have sex then by god you're big enough to handle the consequences and should be made to do so. Takes two to tango. Isn't just the girls' problem.

I could go on and on but think those are the major issues.

Anonymous said...

"Those college grads will come after Memphis has PROVEN it has a commitment to a future that works for everyone. Not before. A ton of bait won't cut it anymore. They will leave once they get here and find out it was all a hoax if we play our normal game. The word is out on Memphis, too late to stop stats."

Well said. Like attracts like.

Anonymous said...

I know what "Save this MG" said is ON TARGET!
What's happened here is Memphis politicians have made a business out of crime, PERIOD. It's no joke and no conspiracy theory, it's as transparent as can be to the point of obvious. The need to be running for their lives, not for office.
I don't even want to get started on describing the unfathomable kinds and unbelievable volume of CRIME that goes on right under Joe Brown and Barbara Ware's noses, it an unspeakable atrocity!

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