VOL. 11 | NO. 16 | Saturday, April 21, 2018
By Patrick Lantrip
In an increasingly interconnected world, having a cohesive economic regionalism strategy is becoming more of a must-have for successful metropolitan areas.
To facilitate this, the Urban Land Institute held Memphis’ first RegionSmart Summit in 2016 to gather all of the area’s government, economic development and community leaders in one place to collectively address some of the region’s most pressing planning and development issues.
Now in its third year, this year’s keynote speakers will include Ed McMahon, senior fellow with the ULI in Washington, D.C.; Lynn Ross, founder and principal of Spirit for Change Consulting LLC, a boutique consulting firm dedicated to creative solutions for evolving places and people serving the common good; and John Hope Bryant, founder, chairman and CEO of the financial literacy nonprofit Operation HOPE Inc., and chairman and CEO of Bryant Group Ventures and The Promise Homes Co.
McMahon said he will discuss strategies for successful economic development in the modern world.
“Primarily, what I’m going to be talking about is how the economic development model has changed and how Memphis can take advantage of the new model, while focusing on its existing assets,” McMahon said.
And he will use the national bid for Amazon’s second U.S. headquarters as an example for Memphis.
“For most American cities, successful economic development today is not about the one big thing,” McMahon said. “And if it is, you’re giving away the store to get it. New Jersey, for example, has offered $7 billion to Amazon.”
Instead of the home-run strategy, McMahon said, he’s going to focus on several key imperatives, including how to attract and retain talent, the importance of connectivity and the power of authentic place-making.
“Too many cities try to copy what somebody else does,” he said. “If you can’t differentiate your city from any other city, you simply have no competitive advantage in a world where people can move anywhere they want. And that sameness is a minus, not a plus.”
He cited Austin, Texas, and the “Keep Austin Weird” mantra that’s helped it become the fastest-growing city in the country.
“It’s not just a funny slogan, it’s an economic imperative,” he said. “Community character really matters in the world we live in today.”
He pointed to National Association of Realtors data that suggest investors increasingly are seeking locations based on the quality of place rather than the utility of that location.
“It’s not about what Memphis doesn’t have, it’s about what Memphis does have,” McMahon said. “Quality of life, which used to be totally unimportant in economic development, is critical today, and I would suggest that the key infrastructure investment for most American cities today is not roads, it is education.”
Additionally, he said many cities rely too heavily on subsidies and tax breaks for corporations.
“It simply pits one community against another community and moves economic activity around,” he said. “Businesses leave or threaten to leave after their subsidies run out. It’s putting all of your eggs in one or two baskets, and the taxpayers end up subsidizing big business.”
Instead, McMahon said, communities should consider investing in themselves.
“Let’s think about another strategy, which might be doing everything you can to make Memphis a great place to live, and to work on developing a skilled workforce, which would create lasting assets that would pay dividends long into the future beyond the initial investment,” he said.
And Memphis, like a lot of Southern cities, could learn to just say no more often, he adds.
“Particularly in the South, one of the biggest impediments to better development is fear of saying no to anything, and one of things we learn is if you’re afraid to say no to anything, you’ll get the worst of everything,” he said. “Communities should pick and choose among development projects, because all development is not created equal.”
Lynn Ross, meanwhile, will discuss the power of civic commons, which are public spaces such as parks, libraries, trails and community centers, to support neighborhood and city success.
“When we don’t show up in public life, when we don’t have welcoming public spaces, and when we don’t interact regularly with strangers, trust declines,” she said. “Every community has the opportunity to reverse that by revitalizing and connecting their public assets, their civic commons.”
Last year, Memphis was selected for a $40 million, three-year national initiative known as Reimagining the Civic Commons along with Akron, Ohio; Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,
Funded by a collaboration of national foundations that include the JPB Foundation, Knight Foundation, Kresge Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, Reimagining the Civic Commons aims to create civic engagement, socioeconomic mixing, environmental sustainability and value creation.
“In Memphis, the team’s work is focused on a set of assets along the Mississippi River adjacent to its downtown,” Ross said. “The Fourth Bluff project will re-conceive the historic Cossitt Library, Riverline Trail, Memphis Park and Mississippi River Park into places where Memphians from all backgrounds can come together to connect with nature and one another. A great example of this work Memphians may remember from last summer is RiverPlay.”
Locally, partners in the Fourth Bluff team include the Memphis Mayor’s Office, Downtown Memphis Commission, Hyde Family Foundations, Innovate Memphis, the Memphis Grizzlies, Memphis Public Libraries and the Riverfront Development Corp.
“I’m excited to come to Memphis and share the broader context for the Reimagining the Civic Commons work, including examples of how the work is playing out in our other cities,” Ross said. “I hope attendees will take away a sense of urgency for not only engaging in the Fourth Bluff effort, but also the other significant public spaces efforts underway, including riverfront redevelopment. Our civic commons must be thought of as critical to the success of neighborhoods, cities and regions.”
Paul Young, director of the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development, is serving as chair of the RegionSmart planning committee on behalf of Urban Land Institute.
Young, who is also a ULI member, is no stranger to the RegionSmart Summit, as he helped plan the original summit when he was a liaison to ULI for Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s office.
“Each year it’s been better and better,” Young said. “I think we’ve learned some things about the flow of the event, which I think you’ll see reflected in the timing this year. We’ve reduced it to half a day in order to ensure that we capture everybody’s time and use it efficiently.”
He also described this year’s lineup as dynamic.
“It’s all about convening people to demonstrate how we can address regional issues in a cohesive manner,” Young said. “A lot of the municipalities have their own goals and objectives, but overall we all want a thriving metropolitan area.”
He said one of the main reasons events like these are important to the region is the amount information sharing.
“We see headlines in the newspaper, but until you are able to sit down and have a thorough explanation of some of the issues and how they relate to our spaces, we won’t be able to fully address them,” Young said.
Another reason it’s important is being able to connect and forge relationships with leaders and organizers in surrounding communities who may be facing similar issues.
“That’s one of the best parts about this convening, is we’re able to connect people,” Young said.
Young said Memphians who attend this year’s summit can expect to gain insights into some of the broader challenges facing the region and will hopefully be inspired to take action.
“It doesn’t all have to be done from a government perspective,” Young said. “There’s a role that all residents can play, ranging from doing some of the placemaking initiatives to large-scale development that individuals in the community can take on themselves.”
One impetus for the RegionSmart Summit is convening the regional mayors, something ULI has been doing for the past several years.
Young said RegionSmart is really the public-facing conversation that mayors have been having about ways to address issues like education and workforce development, transportation, urban planning, economic development.
“RegionSmart is really the public’s way of becoming engaged in those same dialogues and you will see a number of mayors represented at the summit,” Young said.
One of those mayors will be Luttrell, and he gives a lot of credit to ULI for helping to bring the region’s mayors together.
“What it’s allowed us to do is to really focus on these issues of transportation and workforce development from a collaborative standpoint,” Luttrell said.
This model has worked successfully in other metropolitan areas, including in Middle Tennessee, he said.
“We like to think that we have the potential here for the growth that we have seen in other areas across the country,” Luttrell said.
The summit also helps the mayors gain insight and perspectives from the speakers.
“Regionalism is the trend that’s moving throughout the country,” Luttrell said. “It’s a paradigm shift for us in terms of looking at the economy broader than just our geographical county or city.”
Luttrell hopes attendees to the conference will become more aware of the initiatives taking place that are beneficial to the entire regional area.
“If you’re living down in Southaven or over in West Memphis, there would be some benefit in attending a conference where collectively our issues are discussed with a singular objective in mind,” Luttrell said.