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The outlook for Memphis: risk and reward.

Since I took office two years ago, our nation has reached a remarkable tipping point: more Americans are now living in cities than ever before. Our nation is urbanizing more and more rapidly, and by 2050, a full 75.0 percent of American people are expected to have located to a city.

The reasons for this rising urban population are clear: cities are and have always been dynamic clusters of opportunity and culture. The very best American cities are characterized not only by their resilient economies, but also by their outstanding cultural offerings and vibrant neighborhoods. Cities are, as Harvard economist Ed Glaesar calls them, "our greatest invention," the most efficient possible mechanisms by which goods, services, and knowledge can be generated and shared with the market. In the midst of an economic downtown, moving to a big city makes more and more sense for more and more American workers and their families.

In November 2011, the Atlantic's Kaid Benfield declared that we are seeing "the end of sprawl." Municipal and state governments are having an increasingly difficult time making the case for investing in the construction and maintenance of new infrastructure in low-density areas, while employers are noting the remarkable advantages to worker productivity and profits that come with co-locating alongside other businesses in an urban core. Economics correspondent and author Ryan Avent suggests that where population density is doubled, businesses in an area can see productivity spike by as much as 28.0 percent. The things that define cities--a person's proximity to other workers and exposure to a variety of experiences--are distinct competitive advantages, particularly in an emerging knowledge economy.

The rapid urbanization of America starkly illustrates the differences between our nation's cities. Our unique assets and weaknesses, the relative cleanliness and safety of our public spaces, the quality of our schools and infrastructure, and, above all, the wisdom or folly of how we allocate our taxpayer dollars speak volumes about our priorities. Moreover, these differences underscore an even more salient truth: the competition between cities for jobs, talent, and investment has never been fiercer. To the degree that America's economic dominance in a global economy relies on the success of its cities, cities themselves are working harder than ever to promote who we are and what we have to offer to our "investors"--our residents--even as we look to learn from one another and confront many of the same challenges.

In a sense, some things about cities never change. They have always been our nation's most essential engines of innovation and entrepreneurship. World-changing advances in everything from medicine to finance to manufacturing to public sanitation have originated from teams of visionaries who found in cities the time, talent, and resources to bring their plans to life and then watch them succeed or fail in the open market. This aspect of cities is truer now than ever.

This new golden age of urban America should not obscure some other, very dark truths about the state of our national economy. The recovery from recession is happening too slowly for the 25 million Americans presently" out of work. Cities may still be America's economic engine, but right now, the vehicle feels as though it's stuck in neutral and rolling backwards.

Memphis sadly reflects many of the most unfortunate national economic trends. According to the most recently available data, more than one in ten Memphians is out of work, and more than one in four lives below the poverty line; these numbers are even higher for African Americans, who make up more than two-thirds of our city's total population. Research by CEOs for Cities confirms that Memphis ranks 49th out of the nation's top 51 metropolitan areas in terms of college attainment. In addition, the U.S. Census Bureau revealed last month that only four other American cities have a greater gap between their richest and poorest citizens.

In the midst of an economic crisis that has been slowly unfolding for years, there has never been a better time to write the map that will set Memphis on the road to the economic success we deserve.

We have been extremely fortunate over the past year: new partnerships with the White House, in the form of its Strong Cities Strong Communities program, the Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Brookings Institution, the National Endowment for the Arts, and others are focused heavily on coordinating our existing resources for maximum job creation. We began last year by announcing that Electrolux, Mitsubishi Electric Power Products, and City Brewing would bring thousands of new manufacturing jobs to disinvested neighbor hoods in southwest Memphis and Hickory Hill. The Great American Steamboat Company and Bass Pro Shops have also made extraordinary commitments to our downtown area that will greatly enhance our retail and tourism revenues.

We need to sustain this momentum by, continuing to focus on our city's core strengths, particularly logistics and medical device manufacturing made possible by our enviable geographic location, and tourism, a product of our singular civil rights and music history. These sectors have formed the bedrock of our economy for generations and continue to show strong potential for near-term and long-term growth.

To accelerate their progress, Mayor Luttrell and I worked closely with the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission to establish the Economic Development and Growth Engine of Memphis and Shelby County (EDGE), an unprecedented effort to coordinate all of our various economic development processes and tools. EDGE, which will be led by Reid Dulberger, our city and county's first official Chief Economic Development Officer, will now serve as the single point of entry for every company that is looking to move into or expand within Shelby County. In November, the Beacon Center of Tennessee announced that Memphis was the state's "Least Business-Friendly City." EDGE will focus on reversing that opinion by coordinating the city's and county's job-creating efforts with the Greater Memphis Chamber and our other economic development partners.

Even as we invest in the most traditionally reliable sectors of our economy, we know that we must adapt and innovate to meet the needs of a new economy--one that is focused more heavily on knowledge workers and the rapid transfer of technology and innovation from the lab to the market. Last month, the City Council approved my request to support JumpStart, a nationally-recognized non-profit organization focused on developing entrepreneurial ecosystems that is eager to work in Memphis. JumpStart's research in Memphis is expected to trigger millions of dollars in third-sector capital to accelerate the development of new high-growth start-ups, making our allocation of funds one of the most exciting investments in economic development in recent years.

Other programs that will provide critical early-stage capital and enhanced municipal contracting opportunities for minority-owned and women-owned businesses will be coming online soon. Right now, even though more than two-thirds of our city's population is African American, minority-owned businesses generate less than 2.0 percent of all business receipts in our area, which is simply unacceptable. These businesses need resources--sometimes in the form of a grant or a loan, sometimes as a skill-building workshop or seminar, or sometimes as simple networking assistance. Resources that help those at the lowest rungs of society's ladder and allow successful small- and medium-sized businesses to expand will lilt the assets, incomes, and property values of every one in our region. One of my first acts as mayor was intervening to save our city's federally-funded Workforce Investment Network (WIN) from being taken over by the state. Today, under new leadership and with a new strategic vision in place, WIN is an extremely successful and active agency helping displaced workers and companies align their employment and training needs.

In all of our economic development planning, we must not overlook the importance of investments that enhance quality-of-life for all Memphians. These investments--our bike lanes, parks, public art works, and civic beautification projects--will pay stronger dividends in the years to come. By making our residential neighborhoods and downtown business district more livable and safe, we foster the kind of vibrancy and excitement that only cities can offer. The next generation of talented young workers and their families are looking for these amenities, and we imperil our entire economic fortunes if we ignore them.

Memphis has a geographical location and multimodal transportation infrastructure that is quite literally the envy of the world. Our music and cultural scene is peerless in terms of historical significance and contemporary vibrancy. More so now than at any time in recent history, we are seeing new alliances and alignments between companies, nonprofits, and schools; between municipalities and governments; and between people who truly have our community's best interests at heart. I have never been more enthusiastic about our prospects because I see no reason why we cannot excel and surpass our peer cities in the years to come.

Will this require some new and additional investments on everyone's part? Yes. Will there be some risk involved? Absolutely.

But, this is a moment that we cannot afford to let pass. The rewards--for our neighborhoods, our region, and our country--are well worth it. We have the location, the talent, and the willpower to succeed. I am eager to get to work.

Special thanks to Mr. Kerry Hayes, Special Assistant for Research and Innovation in the Office of Mayor A. C. Wharton, Jr.

by A. C. Wharton, Jr., Mayor, City of Memphis


A native of Lebanon, Tennessee, Mayor Wharton attended Tennessee State University on an academic scholarship, graduating with honors in political science in 1962. Six years later, he entered the University of Mississippi Law School, where he was one of the first African American students to serve on the Moot Court Board and the first African American to serve on the Judicial Council. He graduated with honors in 1971 and later became the University's first African American professor of law, a position that he held for 25 years.

Wharton served for two years in the Office of General Counsel of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, D.C., before moving to the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to head the Public Employment Project funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. In November 1973, Wharton accepted a job as Executive Director of Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS), a non-profit organization that provided legal assistance and counseling to the community's poor. Under his leadership, MALS thrived and was recognized nationally for its innovative programs, including one of the nation's first legal services offices for seniors.

In 1980, then Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris appointed Wharton as Chief Shelby County Public Defender, where his concern for the mentally ill in the criminal justice system gave birth to the Jericho Project, another nationally-renowned program. He was also chosen to chair Shelby County's Jail Overcrowding Committee, which developed new ways to ease overcrowding without sacrificing public safety.

In 1982, he wrote and passed one of the first state laws in the U.S. to combat domestic violence, and at the national level, he worked for a special appropriation for one of the nation's first transitional living facilities for juveniles.

Elected as the first African American Shelby County Mayor in 2002 with 62.0 percent of the vote and easily reelected in 2006 with 77.0 percent of the vote, Mayor Wharton developed the county's first financial plan that is decreasing the county's debt payments; reduced the county payroll; kept The Med open; expanded Head Start; increased efficiency; developed the first smart growth and sustainability plan for our community; inspired Operation Safe Community, the first comprehensive crime-fighting plan in our history; and limited county government to only one tax increase in seven years.

While serving as Shelby County Mayor, A. C. Wharton also created notable programs such as Ready, Set, Grow and Books from Birth. Additionally, he led several initiatives, including the repositioning and funding of Shelby Farms Park, the collection and assessment of empirical data on Shelby County's infant mortality rate, and a county-wide increase in minority contractors from 2.0 percent to 11.0 percent.

In October 2009, the city of Memphis was faced with having to hold a special election to choose its first new mayor in 18 years. Mayor Wharton entered the race and, backed by a coalition of supporters that was unprecedented in its diversity and depth, was propelled to an overwhelming victory against a field of two dozen challengers.

Within his first year as Memphis mayor, Mayor Wharton enacted new standards for government transparency and employee ethics; made urgent changes at the Memphis Animal Shelter and the auto inspection stations; celebrated historic reductions in violent crime; established the new Office of Talent and Human Capital to develop, attract, and retain the best and brightest young workers; and laid out a new blueprint for comprehensively restructuring the operations and business model for city government.

His record of leadership is well known among national organizations dealing with the issues facing cities. He has testified before the U.S. Congress and has spoken at numerous major conferences, including those of the Brookings Institution, CEOs for Cities, and National Association of Counties. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg invited Mayor Wharton to help review his city's anti-poverty plans, and Mayor Wharton is a member of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition headed by Mayor Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

Mayor and Mrs. Wharton have raised six sons.
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Author:Wharton, A.C., Jr.
Publication:Business Perspectives
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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