Statistically, we know that talented workers are vital to any city’s economy. Cities need creative, enthusiastic, entrepreneurial citizens to start businesses, buy homes, send their kids to school and do all of the things that people do to create value in neighborhoods. When talented people “opt-out” of one city in favor of another, for any reason, some cities win while others lose. It’s no secret that Memphis has been on the losing end of this equation for quite some time.
As a result, over the past few years a common, well-intentioned civic mantra has arisen – from the mayor’s office, the Greater Memphis Chamber, and numerous non-profit organizations and for-profit businesses – declaring that we must attract, retain, and engage new citizens to Memphis. The need to “attract, retain, and engage” talent is heard so often, and with such urgent seriousness, that it is universally accepted wisdom. If only we can attract more people to Memphis, convince them to stay and then somehow figure out what to do with them, any number of our city’s social and economic ills will be cured.
At first it seems appropriate and perhaps even resembles a course of action. With a bit of contemplation however, it sounds so very desperate. An “attract-engage-retain” strategy is out of order. It fails to recognize the unique assets we have in Memphis, be they cultural, historical, culinary, academic, business, architectural or musical. Worse, it assumes that growth somehow happens from the outside-in.
We need to change our cultural vernacular. No longer do we need to strive to attract, hope to retain and then engage. We need to engage the people we have, retain them in the process, which will then make us more attractive to others. We need to move to an “engage-retain-attract” strategy; in other words, it is time for a “new ERA” in Memphis.
For our corporate citizens and leaders it means supporting the boldest and most creative among us. It means having less fear of failure, having a bigger appetite for risk. It means making investments in our own people and ideas, knowing that some may fail but others may exceed beyond our wildest imagination. It means being more publicly bold and less timid when it comes to supporting ideas and initiatives that push the normal comfort zone a bit farther.
For individuals, it is a bit easier to get engaged. It means going out. It means exploring new neighborhoods with friends. It means making new friends in unlikely places. It means visiting the Mississippi River or Shelby Farms first thing in the morning or going to a free show at Levitt Shell or finding a new art gallery in Crosstown or Broad Avenue after work. It means appreciating our diverse citizenry, eclectic assets and unique culture.
It means seeing your city for what it is: a place of perpetual discovery and delight, possibility and promise. It means seeing your fellow Memphians for who they are: people whose experiences with our city, good or bad, infuriating or joyful, are not that dissimilar from yours, no matter where they grew up or where they go to church.
From there, the process pretty much takes care of itself. When people and organizations are engaged in a place, they tend to stick around, feel connected, become more confident and begin to believe. We spend less time apologizing because we’re spending too much time living, growing and being involved.
When others notice how much fun we’re having living our lives in our weird little river city, they’ll naturally want to come to the party.
A new ERA for Memphis has begun. Are you in?
Doug Carpenter is founder and principal of doug carpenter & associates llc.