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VOL. 119 | NO. 208 | Monday, November 14, 2005

Census Bureau Pinpoint's City's Daytime Population

By Andy Meek

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"As Memphis has spread and even lost population in the inner city, these outer areas are getting people, but they're keeping their jobs in Memphis, and that's a positive thing."
- Gene Pearson
director, U of M graduate program in city and regional planning

Each weekday after sunrise, Memphis gets a taste of suburban flight in reverse.

More than 100,000 people commute to work in Memphis five days a week from outside the city, offering literally a moving portrait of the city's magnetic pull. That number, calculated for the first time this year by the U.S. Census Bureau, has implications for city planners, businesses - and even supporters of a tax proposal aimed at commuters that has been quietly simmering in the legislature.

Commuting for work. The data is the bureau's first estimate on daytime population change for cities. And it reflects the fact that - though homeowners are chasing land out to the margins of the metropolitan area - their jobs remain in the urban core.

Those suburban commuters who return each day to Memphis include Stephanie Anderson, a member of Lakeland's Board of Commissioners. She leaves her bedroom community each morning shortly before 7 for her drive to Grace-St. Luke's Episcopal School on Belvedere.

"I enjoy my commute to work," Anderson said. "I love my job, but I also love where I live, and so I make the two work."

The fact that thousands like Anderson are apparently making the two work is good economic news to Gene Pearson, director of the University of Memphis graduate program in city and regional planning. Pearson has been tracking general commuter patterns in the Memphis area since the 1970s.

Single economy. Drawn on a map, those patterns would show arrows all pointing to the Bluff City. This year's figures for daytime population change, which were culled from the 2000 census, show a 15.8 percent jump in Memphis Monday through Friday. DeSoto County, by contrast, loses 18.8 percent each day, because a little more than one-third of the people who live there actually work there.

"Of course, what it's reflective of is that Memphis is a single economy," Pearson said. "And the city of Memphis simply has expanded into Tipton, Fayette and DeSoto counties and now is beginning to expand into Tunica, Tate and Marshall.

"And I think as Memphis has spread and even lost population in the inner city, these outer areas are getting people, but they're keeping their jobs in Memphis, and that's a positive thing."

A cash cow? It could also turn into a positive for the politicians who control the city's purse strings.

Daytime population increases in metro areas:
15.8 percent - Memphis
19.5 percent - Nashville
21.2 percent - Charlotte
28.0 percent - Denver
41.1 percent - Boston
71.8 percent - Washington, D.C.

Last month, Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton painted a gloomy financial portrait of the city's cash-strapped budget, which includes a deficit of $25.8 million for fiscal year 2005.

To some, those thousands of out-of-town commuters represent a cash cow that could help ease that burden.

"Besides contributing to better planning, the data might also provide ammunition for the advocates of a local payroll tax," wrote the folks at Smart City Memphis on the group's Web site, www.smartcitymemphis.blogspot.com. Smart City Memphis is run by Coletta & Co., a Memphis consulting firm run by Carol Coletta, host of the National Public Radio show Smart City.

"The new census estimates form a fascinating glimpse of Memphis' magnetic pull to the region, but they may also form the basis of a fascinating political dance to pass a payroll tax," the site stated.

Using the data. Earlier this year, calculations passed around by Shelby County Commission member John Willingham showed that a 2.5 percent payroll tax - which would be levied on people who work in the area but live elsewhere - could reap almost $500 million. Willingham folded that into an economic proposal that included several other layers, such as reducing the county's property tax rate by $1.04.

His proposal didn't get much traction, but that's not the only thing the commuter data could be used for. Wayne Hatcher, regional director of the Census Bureau for an area that includes the states of Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, said business owners can benefit from it.

"Businesses can look at communities that have a much larger daytime population, where a restaurant might say, 'Perhaps we don't need to be open in the evening. We might do a great business with breakfast and lunch in the early afternoon, but then the people are leaving in the evening in this particular section of the city,'" he explained. "Local governments can also use that data to help them perhaps with public transportation planning and with HOV lanes maybe being added to certain roads."

Traffic patterns. The latter, in fact, is one of Anderson's biggest gripes on her way to work each morning. Her regular commute takes her across Interstate 40 to Sam Cooper Boulevard, where she then navigates East Parkway and Union Avenue.

"I used to drive this way before the flyover was constructed, and traffic is 100 times better now," she said. "What is most frustrating is the lack of respect for the HOV lanes after 7 a.m. There are all kinds of people on my tail in the HOV lane, and when I look at them, they have one person in the car. Most people just use it as a passing lane."

Back to the city. In the meantime, Pearson said, the data has a hidden message for pessimists about the future of Memphis. And even though the figures are five years old, he doesn't suspect they've changed much in that time.

"People are still trying to escape the city and move to what they so often call the small-town environment, and it's sort of an elusive thing, because all they're getting is more of the same, except it's newer," he said. "But they keep coming back to the central city for their jobs."

PROPERTY SALES 103 137 4,008
MORTGAGES 84 131 4,521
BUILDING PERMITS 178 368 9,636
BANKRUPTCIES 50 110 2,995