It might be said that John Lawrence has a background made to order for looking at the big picture – one of real estate, urban planning, marketing and organization management. Through the course of various career moves, he’s developed the tools necessary for the use in his position as manager of strategic economic development planning for Memphis and Shelby County’s Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE).
But he comes from a family of entrepreneurs as well, his parents were the first TCBY franchisees outside of Arkansas, and his mother and friends began their own decorative dish manufacturing business. Lawrence grew up seeing economic forces work in real time.
EDGE was created when Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell began looking at how economic development was being handled in the community, and decided there needed to be a coordinated effort among several entities operating on their own – the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board, the Port Commission, Foreign Trade Zone and Defense Depot Redevelopment Agency. These were combined under the umbrella of EDGE to be a unified economic development agency for Memphis and Shelby County.
When the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization conducting independent research and providing innovative recommendations, approached the city and county to work on a metropolitan business planning project as part of a national effort, EDGE was the logical place to coordinate such a thing and Lawrence was brought on to manage the process.
“We really are in the early stages of this, so for the last month or two the mayors have been forming their steering committee to oversee this project,” Lawrence said.
In that time, he has been working with six different and very specific economic market lever work groups including one that focuses on industry sectors and business clusters; workforce development focused on deploying human capital in the market; an innovation and entrepreneurship work group; a spatial efficiency work group that focuses on infrastructure and the built environment; government and civic institutions; and international and exports work group.
“Each of them has just started meeting in order to analyze data about the market and really, in the next couple of months, we hope they’ll each start to develop some very specific strategies about new projects, new economic development ideas, growth potential that we have in the market,” he said.
Some of this growth potential for the county is in exports and the manufacturing sector, Lawrence said.
“Part of the process we’re in right now is understanding where we really stand in terms of exports, but also what our infrastructure supports,” he said. “This project is so interesting because we’re looking not only at what we do well today but what market changes are under way so that we can really capture some opportunity for the future, and the logistic infrastructure we have really supports a great deal of manufacturing that’s already in the market. It’s not necessarily in any one sector.”
It’s this potential that is cause for excitement for the Memphis native and White Station High School graduate who is expecting his first child this April with wife, Melody McAnally, an attorney with Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada PLLC. He received a bachelor’s degree in Urban Planning for Business & Economics and a master’s degree in Real Estate Development from the University of Memphis. Though he didn’t follow his parents into the world of small business, he did work in real estate and, later, for the Center City Commission during the mid-1990s, a time when businesses were eagerly looking at the areas to be in the shadows of the planned AutoZone Park, FedExForum and Peabody Place.
“Things were moving just about as fast as they could then and I wound up getting involved in a lot of things,” he said. “Most people’s career paths would not have moved quite as rapidly as mine did, but I was real fortunate to be in the right place at the right time several different times, and it has worked out really well for me.”
Though he’s spent a career working with the parts of the whole, Lawrence says, “Now what’s really fun is starting to look a lot more holistically at the whole market and start trying to figure out ... (that) we can go project by project and keep taking little bites of what we need to do to improve our region,” he said. “But we need to look at where we can really build some momentum and really start to increase the number and the size and profitability of our businesses, and really start to look at how we improve the efficiency of the systems that attract and support businesses. We have to start figuring out how to grow this market and that’s what’s fun about this project, it really helps you see all the way across all the different elements, and helps us see where those opportunities are.”