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VOL. 129 | NO. 73 | Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Business Case for Investing in Green Space

ROBIN SMITHWICK | Special to The Daily News

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Editor’s Note: This column will appear Tuesdays through April in honor of Sustainability Month for Memphis and Shelby County.

During 2013 the Greater Memphis Chamber formed the Chairman’s Circle, a group of over 100 Memphis business leaders organized to push for action on key issues to accelerate the regional economy. Early in the life of the organization we created “moon missions,” which are coordinated efforts to truly transform our community.

In addition to attracting new entrepreneurs, workforce training, prekindergarten education, pension reform and long-range city planning, we identified the advancement of the Mid-South region’s green spaces as a moon mission because we believe strong parks and greenways can help create a better place to live and to help attract new economic opportunities.

As cities and regions continue to vie for businesses, jobs and talent, quality of life is emerging as a critical competitive advantage. Of course, a strong labor pool and tax and incentive programs are key drivers for attracting and retaining businesses. But increasingly, companies and their employees are focused on what a community offers outside of the workplace before committing to relocate. Along with sports, arts, music, restaurants and entertainment, access to well-maintained parks and greenways are increasingly cited as important amenities.

On a national level, we often hear about cities like Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin and Denver attracting economic development through investing in parks and greenways. But Chattanooga is an example in our state of how focusing on green space can pay dividends.

Prior to the 1980s, Chattanooga treated its riverfront strictly as a commercial resource. As the city began to de-industrialize, it began to re-envision the river and other natural resources. This work culminated in the Tennessee Riverpark Master Plan in 1985, a multimillion-dollar project that reinvented Chattanooga and the city’s quality of life. Investments in parks and greenways led to significant increases in property values for residents and tax revenues for the city.

In 2010, Volkswagen announced its plans to bring a manufacturing plant to Chattanooga. With it came 2,000 new jobs and $1 billion of investment in the regional economy. Volkswagen officials pointed to the city’s efforts to protect natural amenities, create a healthier city and improve quality of life as one of the drivers of their decision to select Chattanooga.

Today, Memphis and the Mid-South region have a similar opportunity through our green spaces. We are creating our own master plan, called the Mid-South Regional Greenprint and Sustainability Plan (midsouthgreenprint.org). In development since 2012, this broadly encompassing plan envisions the development and connection of green spaces for the entire region. It maps 400 miles of greenway trails connecting to parks, neighborhoods, employment centers and transportation in 18 cities and four counties around the region.

It includes projects that are already underway, such as Shelby Farms Park, Overton Park, the Shelby Farms Greenline, Wolf River Greenway, the Riverfront and Harahan Bridge, and many other opportunities to balance natural resource conservation with economic development. The creation of the plan has been a true community-wide effort, with over 80 public and private organizations involved in the initiative.

Much like the Memphis Grizzlies Pursuit Team envisioned when it brought the NBA team to the city, green space investment is a way to reach a broad spectrum of our community as well as to attract new businesses. Just go out to the Greenline and you will see people from all walks of life enjoying this oasis in the center of our city. Imagine the impact of a park and trail system connecting to one another throughout the entire region.

With the master plan due for completion at the end of 2014, the Chairman’s Circle is focused on finding ways to move it from plan to reality by working with the organizations that worked so diligently to create this vision.

The Mid-South Regional Greenprint and Sustainability Plan is the literal roadmap for our moon mission. Supporting and investing in this plan and the organizations that it incorporates will not only transform our landscapes, recreational opportunities and environment, but also improve our health, transportation options, neighborhoods and regional economy. It is an exciting and achievable way to further differentiate Memphis and the Mid-South on a national scale.

Robin Smithwick is managing principal of Diversified Trust and serves as chair of the Greenprint moon mission committee.

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