If there is a list of the most overused words in Memphis, surely “vision” would be near the top along with “world-class.” And yet, the idea that Memphis needs a vision is a regular topic at meetings all over the city, flowing regularly from conversations about what Memphis can do to improve its lethargic economic performance. The U.S. Conference of Mayors predicts that it may be three more years before the region returns to its pre-Great Recession levels.
We see some encouraging signs. Job losses bottomed out in the third quarter of 2010, and in the last quarter of 2013 and the first quarter of 2014, Memphis was number 17 in jobs growth in the U.S. at 0.7 percent. Unemployment peaked in the fourth quarter of 2009, but new jobs are being created slowly, many of them outside the city limits of Memphis and with too many low-wage jobs replacing better-paying jobs.
The Memphis region’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) moved up 4.7 percent in 2012 and 1.7 percent in 2013, ranking us 46th. But in 2005, the per capita GDP for the Memphis region was $51,894 and now it’s $47,014.
In other words, we’re on the way back, but it’s to the place we were before 2008, in the lower rungs of economic performance. What’s needed is a disruptive innovation that catapults Memphis in the economic rankings, which would mean ten billions of dollars in economic expansion.
The Commercial Appeal wrote that the problem is that Memphis needs a vision and held up the Jobs Conference 35 years ago as an example of one. However, those celebrated civic discussions did not really produce a vision. They did, however, elevate the art of the possible with presentations by national leaders who made the case that we did not have to accept things as they are and presented lessons from other cities.
What the Jobs Conference did produce was a package of projects — they were about 50-50 in achieving their potential — that was a proxy for a vision. In retrospect, the Jobs Conference’s overemphasis on tourism and distribution as economic drivers was part of our descent into an economy overrepresented with low-wage, low-skill jobs.
In truth, Memphis is blessed with many visions these days. There is the school reform vision — with charters, Achievement School District, IZone schools, Teacher Town, Knowledge Quest, and more — that has attracted national attention, and if it results in more Memphis students getting college degrees, it may well be the most important force shaping the future.
There’s a vision for arts coming into focus — Hattiloo Theatre, the new addition to the Orpheum Theater, the arts districts on Broad Avenue and South Main, Memphis Slim’s House, ArtsAccelerator, and too many grassroots arts events to count. There’s a new neighborhood vision built on renewed ownership for its residents — Broad Avenue, the EDGE, Community LIFT, Frayser Neighborhood Council, Binghampton, tactical urbanism, GrowMemphis, and much more.
There’s a vision for green assets — Shelby Farms Park and Greenline, Mid-South Greenprinting Plan, the Main to Main project, Wolf River Conservancy, RiverFit, bike lanes, and more. There is a vision of Memphis as a startup city — Forge, StartCo, Seed Hatchery, Greater Memphis Accelerator Consortium, Crews Center for Entrepreneurship, EPIcenter, Bioworks Business Incubator, and more. There is a vision for new economic engines — Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid, Overton Square, Sears Crosstown, Fairgrounds redevelopment, Graceland expansion, and more.
If we learned the primary lesson of the Jobs Conference, it is this: how to package all of these exciting initiatives into something that like the portfolio of projects from the Jobs Conferences gives us a sense of what our future can be.
Perhaps, the vision that Mayor A C Wharton announced when he was elected mayor — Memphis as a City of Choice — remains the best. It calls for the creation of a city that attracts people with choices — middle-class families and young professionals — but it is also about a city that provides choices for people who don’t have any — the 28 percent of Memphians living in poverty and the working poor who make up almost half of all Memphians.
All of the activity under way in Memphis contributes to the accomplishment of that vision, and while City Hall doesn’t always do a good job of connecting its program and projects to this vision, City of Choice is nonetheless a good lens for Memphis.