On a slow Sunday afternoon Downtown with the Broncos and Chargers NFL playoff game on a bar TV screen, a trio of 20-somethings – two men and one woman – watched the game, speculated about whether the Grizzlies were playing a few blocks away and quizzed one another about their plans for the future.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
One of the young men, a transplant to Memphis, talked of looking for a city where he can catch an airline flight and go anywhere he wants.
On a more permanent basis, he told his friends he’s looking for a place to settle in the South – “any major metropolitan area – Atlanta, Houston, Charlotte – anywhere but Memphis.”
The topic seems never far from the surface.
Without prompting the same week, a woman a bit older than the trio volunteered that her friends in other cities constantly ask her why she remains in Memphis after they have left and have no intention of returning.
The basics of the conversation are the same over and over again.
“I tell them things are getting better and they say – ‘No, they are not,’” she added. “We never get past the same problems.”
She also described college-age Memphians as part of a generation that is “fearless.”
Fearless or not, those in college and about to be out of college and in the workforce are a group that civic leaders have repeatedly stressed their concern about retaining in an age of “workforce investment” and “human capital” terminology and concepts.
The answers are not simple because leaving the city one has called home to have a look around is natural. And part of looking around is the possibility of not coming back.
“I always feel Memphis people want to move to Nashville.”
Caroline Giovannetti and Caroline Hill are best friends from their days at St. Agnes Academy who have different takes on the decision.
Both are out of college and in different cities for different reasons.
“I love Memphis. I think it has great things to offer beyond what is always the generic – Beale Street and the music and Graceland,” said Giovannetti, an attorney at Harris Shelton Hanover Walsh PLLC. “I feel like locals watch out for locals. I just wanted to be back in this legal community to practice here. So I made a decision in April of my senior year of college.”
Hill lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., and comes back to visit family here but has no intention of leaving Chattanooga.
“I discovered that I love to be out in nature and I love beautiful mountains and peaceful rivers. I just realized that Memphis didn’t have that,” she said of a journey after graduating from Louisiana State University that took her to Alaska and then Chattanooga. She attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for her master’s degree and became a certified public accountant with a regional firm there.
“I can go home if I want to, if I need to,” Hill said. “But I just feel like Chattanooga is a completely different place than Memphis.”
“It’s kind of easier to leave Memphis, I would say.”
Ashley Dortch will graduate from LeMoyne-Owen College in May and is already interning in Memphis in her chosen profession as a social worker. But she is considering leaving Memphis for graduate school at either Jackson State University or Saint Louis University.
“It’s a turning point in my life,” Dortch said. “That’s where the graduate schools are and the field is bigger there. … My friends are looking out of state. We have several friends who applied online for jobs and had to submit their resumes and then go down there and they’ve gotten jobs. It’s kind of easier to leave Memphis, I would say.”
All three women are part of a generation that is different from their parents, particularly when it comes to this decision.
“When my parents were graduating from college, everyone came back here and got married and they had the same friends from college and high school,” Giovannetti said. “It’s not like that anymore. People go somewhere and have a temporary job. They’ll go to Jackson Hole and work at a ski resort outdoors. That’s been very popular with people my age from Memphis. They are slowly coming back here and those decisions are because they are ready to go to work for a company they always knew they were going to work for.”
Meanwhile, Hill continues trying to talk her brother in Memphis into moving to Chattanooga.
“You grow up somewhere and you know you want to stay there or you know you want to leave,” Hill said. “I don’t think there’s anything horrible about Memphis. I do know that there’s more out there. Memphis is evolving too, though. Every time I go home I’m surprised.”
Giovannetti cited a career network among attorneys that began with her choice of the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law and is common with other law schools in other states.
“It’s a networking market and they teach you the laws for the state you are in as well as the multi-state law,” she said. “So you are more prepared to take that state’s bar when you graduate.”
She earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Alabama and worked at a law firm in Birmingham while still in school there to compare Birmingham and Memphis.
Hill said for her friends at the University of Mississippi there is a jobs pipeline to Memphis because it is the “next big town.”
“My friends at Ole Miss – coming back to Memphis is a little bit easier,” she said. “I went to LSU when I was going through my interview process after undergrad. You didn’t really have an option to interview in Memphis.”
Dortch said her friends at LeMoyne-Owen are split 50-50 on leaving Memphis or putting down roots in the city.
“You have some that don’t want to leave their comfort zone,” she said. “Then you have some who have actually gone outside of Memphis and seen other things and they would rather experience them.”
Some with families don’t like the uncertainty of the schools merger and demerger.
“When you take into account everything that’s going on including the education system – some of my friends who have children – they would prefer that their child not be in Memphis schools,” Dortch said. “It’s just not fair to the children. It affects everything. It affects your decision to want to stay in Memphis.”
As Memphians consider where to go post-college degree, people their age are making similar decisions in other cities and some are considering Memphis.
What makes them enthusiastic is the very challenge that Dortch mentioned.
Hundreds of recent college graduates from across the country are living in Memphis as part of teacher residency programs through Memphis Teacher Residency and Teach for America. The two residency programs have contracts with the Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools to teach in some of the lowest performing schools in the state.
Last year when Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam met with those in Memphis Teacher Residency, he asked each where they were from and how long they intended to stay. Virtually all were from someplace other than Memphis. A few were non-committal about staying beyond their residencies. But most were quick to say they intended to stay beyond the residencies and were as enthusiastic about Memphis as they were about teaching.
Achievement School District superintendent Chris Barbic has talked of making Memphis “Teacher Town USA” when it comes to recruiting teachers from across the country. And the selling point is the chance to make a difference in an education environment that Haslam has recently said is seeing more change in public education than any other major city in the United States.
The pushback isn’t just from those coming to Memphis.
It is 20- and 30-somethings who have been most responsible for the social media-based civic pushback against the persistent downing of Memphis that had reached such a high volume level at the millennium mark that it influenced the pursuit of even the most modest goal.
Younger Memphians are the force behind “I Love Memphis” blog and Twitter account, the Choose 901 campaign and similar initiatives.
Choose 901 is a year-and-half-old campaign by the civic group City Leadership to specifically promote the concept of actively promoting the city with an eye toward retaining young professionals in the city.
It is an inexact science as City Leadership executive director John Carroll said at the one-year mark for the program.
He talked of branding the city to that demographic, “and then you basically kind of hold on for dear life and see how many of them stay in your city.”
“I Love Memphis” is part of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau that goes deeper than appeals to potential tourists and convention planners. It speaks to locals as well.
Appeals for young adults in college or just graduating to return to Memphis or stay in Memphis or come back to Memphis are a staple of most broad assessments of the city’s current state by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell. They are also part of the agenda of new Greater Memphis Chamber board chairman Leigh Shockey.
With the need to inject more of a positive tone to civic discussions comes an acknowledgement that thinking positive thoughts or saying you love Memphis isn’t going to bring about change.
Giovannetti says Memphis should emphasize what is new, what has changed, beyond the familiar touchstones of FedEx, Beale Street and Graceland.
Dortch sees too many of the civic discussions that result in action as about saving money or not spending money.
“People should actually care about the citizens in Memphis, instead of how things affect them economically,” she said, citing the schools merger. “It seemed more of a financial benefit than an educational benefit if they are going to close more schools. People should actually care not about the funds, but the people and how it will affect them long term.”
Giovannetti said civic leaders should focus on “companies that have job opportunities.”
“Nashville job opportunities I hear about a lot more than Memphis job opportunities,” she said, as she added that Nashville is a big draw for Memphians.
“I don’t understand why people love Nashville so much, but I always feel Memphis people want to move to Nashville,” Giovannetti said. “So maybe discussing or looking into the reasons why people say Nashville over Memphis. To me they both have great things about them and they both have bad things about them. But I feel like the bad things about Nashville are never discussed, while Memphis – those things are discussed.”