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VOL. 127 | NO. 84 | Monday, April 30, 2012

Aerotropolis Brand Slow To Catch On

By Bill Dries

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The president of the company that helped give Alliance, Texas, the country’s first 100 percent cargo airport said he and others in the project had the advantage of working with a relatively blank slate.

(FedEx Corporation)

But Hillwood Properties president Michael K. Berry told this month’s Mid-South Aerotropolis Conference that Alliance – which sits in the middle of the Dallas-Forth Worth Metroplex – was built on the principles of how the FedEx Corp. Super Hub operates in Memphis.

Berry told the gathering at the University of Memphis that Alliance doesn’t fit a precise definition of an aerotropolis as a development plan centered on an airport, as depicted by University of North Carolina professor John Kasarda.

Berry said he sees Alliance – with its intermodal facility, rail lines and interstate access complementing Fort Worth Alliance Airport – as more of “an extension” of the aerotropolis idea.

“You can’t duplicate this model in a lot of places,” he said. “But you can stack a lot of those factors side by side.”

It took three years from concept to concrete for the airport built specifically for distribution and logistics to open in 1989. More than 20 years later, Berry said Alliance has outgrown its initial infrastructure as the area expands to include corporate campuses, hospitals, single-family homes and a town center.

With that growth, Berry described Alliance as “the mothership” for a larger area.

The idea that the concept of Alliance has conceptual roots in Memphis was part of the conference’s broader discussion about how infrastructure connecting Memphis International Airport to roads and rails and riverports can change the alignment of Memphis businesses with the rest of the world.

Richard Smith, the chairman of the aerotropolis branding and marketing working group, said “America’s Distribution Center” – the slogan adopted by the city in the 1980s that is sometimes compared to the aerotropolis efforts – is 20th century in its origins.

Because it doesn’t reflect the global nature of not only trade but of the competition in trade and the possibilities, civic leaders recently adopted the more modern tagline “Memphis: America’s Aerotropolis. Where Runway, Road, Rail and River Merge.”

But many are realizing that branding a city as an aerotropolis is difficult in other potential markets for a variety of reasons.

Smith, the managing director of life sciences and specialty services for FedEx Express, noted there is hesitancy about the aerotropolis concept elsewhere, notably in China.

Smith has encountered some hesitancy among Chinese officials to designate the airport and FedEx hub at Guangzhou as an aerotropolis and form a trade triangle with Memphis International Airport and Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris. The three international airports comprise FedEx’s so-called “three-hub strategy” linking Asia, North America and Europe.

Last year, Memphis leaders signed a trade pact with Paris leaders during the World Airport Cities Conference held in Memphis. Under the pact each city agreed to refer economic development prospects to the other city and make specific connections in those cities when prospects are in search of a place to do business in Europe or the U.S.

Smith has been talking with Chinese officials about joining the pact as FedEx seeks to better align the impact of its major hubs on all three continents.

“That stalled a little bit I think mainly because there are so many major ports in China that maybe the Chinese government is having a little trouble with the rationale with positioning one over another as Asia’s aerotropolis,” he said. “Singapore’s another one we might look at to do that type of partnership with.”

Whether that shifts FedEx’s focus remains to be seen, but it left little doubt that the aerotropolis concept is still looking to take flight as more than a catchphrase. Others at the conference sense doubt or indifference in some quarters to aligning the Memphis civic identity to the concept, albeit for different reasons.

“What do we really believe? What do we really think about this as an opportunity?” were the two questions Cushman & Wakefield/Commercial Advisors LLC president and CEO Larry Jensen posed. “I sometimes think that we underestimate what our opportunity is. We have the Memphis mentality sometimes that I’m not sure we can do that.”

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