‘Outside the Fence’ Vital for Aerotropolis

By Bill Dries

Local leaders pushing the aerotropolis concept and brand realize they have a problem. The concept is so simple that it has been difficult to build momentum in advance of a concrete plan to begin changing the geography of the area outside the fences of Memphis International Airport.

That is likely to change once a plan for the development of certain kinds of businesses within the general area of the airport is completed.

The development of the plan has $2.1 million in funding with a consultant to be named soon.

For now, though, some wonder what it is. Some write it off as a marketing campaign, which it has been to this point. And others don’t make any distinction between the idea of a development plan with the airport’s air cargo hub status as its epicenter and the recent cuts in passenger service.

The aerotropolis concept is also living with the ghost of the 1980s-era campaign to brand Memphis as “America’s Distribution Center.”

In Memphis this week for the Mid-South Aerotropolis Conference at the University of Memphis, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., put the old slogan in perspective as he challenged the city to embrace an obvious advantage and commit for once.

“Why would you try to be an average something else, if you already have what it takes to be the leading aerotropolis in the U.S. and perhaps the world?” he told a group of 300 at the conference luncheon. “America’s distribution center is a safer idea. … Memphis right now is hungry for a unifying purpose. But most importantly, you’ve got the busiest cargo airport in this country and sometimes in the world lying under your nose.”

Those at the daylong conference, presented by the U of M Intermodal Freight Transportation Institute and the Greater Memphis Chamber, heard from others who said the economic development concept is linked to the comeback of blighted neighborhoods as places Memphians choose to live.

For Butler Snow PLLC senior counsel Julie Ellis, aerotropolis is the cure for what she terms “it’ll do disease” outside the confines of the airport fence lines.

“We thought we were taking care of business outside the fence,” said the attorney who chairs the aerotropolis planning work group and focuses her law practice on transportation, logistics and aviation. “I think we thought things were going fine in our airport area because we never went.”

The area outside of the fence that Ellis refers to most often is Lamar Avenue, the city’s major freight artery that runs right by Memphis International Airport and a major intermodal rail freight yard.

Ellis and others estimate 70 percent of the metropolitan area’s gross domestic product (GDP) comes out of the area.

It’s also the city’s most congested major thoroughfare and changing that with a road design with interchanges in place of intersections means changing the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s definition of “soon” – as in a plan will be approved soon. Soon can still mean more than five years at least and usually decades. And the decisions for the region that includes Memphis are still made in the regional office in Jackson.

U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan specifically mentioned Lamar Avenue.

“It’s far too hard for all of you to develop in these neighborhoods and for your workers to move to those neighborhoods. This despite the fact that the truck traffic on Lamar Avenue is already at 90-percent capacity,” he said. “Every mile your businesses and those who support them have to develop away from aerotropolis, every additional mile your employees have to commute is talent you’re not tapping and money you’re not earning.”

Donovan blamed federal public housing policies and urban renewal policies that he said were “one size fits all” and ignored local leadership.

“It’s contributed to the isolation and lack of opportunity that has left 20 percent of our children in America living in poverty,” he said as he touted an approach from the White House that crosses the jurisdictional lines separating economic development policy and grants from housing policy and grants.

For Memphis leaders, the struggle has been to get beyond planning and hoping for a civic partnership leveraging private investment that is either outside the Downtown area or is not the redevelopment of a former public housing project as a mixed-income, mixed-use development.

There are indications a breakthrough might be on the way. And the breakthrough could be a pending federal transportation grant application for the redesign of Elvis Presley Boulevard in Whitehaven between Brooks Road and Shelby Drive.

If the city gets the grant it applied for in late March, it could be an important first step that those putting a specific plan on paper for aerotropolis have helped to develop and would be happy to put in their win column.