Winners in the Next Economy

A Report from the Mid-South Aerotropolis Conference

By Christina Meek, Greater Memphis Chamber

As cities around the nation are struggling to recover slowly from the recession, cities outside the U.S. are building new infrastructure and growing their economies at exponential rates.  As evidenced by the collapse of the housing market, a cookie-cutter approach to urban development just doesn’t work. Amy Liu from the Brookings Institute says it best. “The winners in the next economy will be those who innovate in manufacturing, in services and be at the vanguard of the clean revolution.”

Liu, a Senior Fellow, Co-Director and Co-Founder of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program recently spoke at the Mid-South Aerotropolis Conference in Memphis, Tenn.  The day-long conference featured over 300 attendees from states across the South and included sessions covering regional economic development strategies in a global context and how the Memphis Aerotropolis model can be used around the globe.

Amy Liu, Senior Fellow, Co-Director and Co-Founder of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program

According to Liu, “Metro areas like Memphis will drive the next economy…[and]…Memphis must act with intention to leverage its strengths and transform its future.”

Memphis has rebranded itself from America’s Distribution Center to Memphis: America’s Aerotropolis™. That’s right.  The Greater Memphis Chamber has trademarked the name. The Aerotropolis Steering Committee has taken steps to set the city on a strategic path to redevelop the area around Memphis International Airport and other areas in the business community.

John Moore, president and CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber says, “About 75% of Memphis’ gross revenue comes from the 50-square mile area around the airport.  If we want to grow our economy, we need to focus on developing the areas that strengthen our business community.  Why start from scratch?”

The term Aerotropolis or “airport city” comes from Dr. John Kasarda who also spoke at the conference.  He explained the crucial role the airport plays in the development of an aerotropolis which he states is how cities in the future will be able to take advantage of growing trends.

“What’s the future hold? Before 2030, world air cargo traffic is expected to more than triple,” said Kasarda. “Global commercial passenger traffic will likely increase from 4.9 billion to approximately 13.3 billion.”

But the Aerotropolis strategy in Memphis doesn’t just include the development around the airport. Memphis touts all four modes of transportation.  In addition to boasting the number one cargo airport in North America, they have five Class-I railroads, the 4th largest inland port and the 3rd most travelled interstate systems. America’s Aerotropolis is smart enough not to put all their eggs in one basket.

Cities that will thrive, not only must have a strategic urban development plan, but must have local, regional and federal support for it.  Keynote speaker, Shaun Donovan, US HUD Secretary spoke at the conference during a leadership luncheon that also featured Fred Smith, president and CEO of FedEx Corp. and US Senator Lamar Alexander (TN).

Secretary Donovan admitted that HUD projects have failed in the past because they were a “one-size fits all” approach to urban development.  For cities to succeed and compete, he said, they need a plan in place that already has local and regional support.  The federal government, he said, understands now that each city knows what’s best for their city.

“With all its [Memphis] assets, rich cultural heritage, remarkable local leadership, and for the first time a flexible federal partner, there’s nothing holding us back.”

Memphis’s leadership has received a $2.1 million grant from HUD to put the Aerotropolis master plan into motion.  Currently, the Greater Memphis Chamber is seeking consultants for this purpose.  The master plan includes redevelopment of the blighted neighborhoods around Memphis International Airport, redevelopment of Elvis Presley Boulevard where Graceland sits and Lamar Avenue which is congested due to hundreds of trucks travelling through the area every day.

Tom Murphy, the former mayor of Pittsburgh gave some advice that worked in his town.  He talked about how when Pittsburgh was not doing so well, the citizens took matters into their own hands by voting for a tax that paid for three large infrastructure projects in Pittsburgh that has given back tenfold to the city by growing the city and redeveloping areas near the river.  But, this level of support doesn’t just exist in Pittsburgh.

“Citizens have chosen to tax themselves to build the necessary infrastructure to compete.”

He quoted the US trend that almost 75% of transportation-related ballot measures have passed in the past four years.

The Aerotropolis concept may not work for every city.  Memphis is uniquely positioned and has strengthened its business community by using and supporting its logistic assets.  What Aerotropolis does for Memphis, like any urban development plan for any city, is it gives them a strategic plan that local, regional and federal leaders can get behind and support.  With that kind of support, cities like Memphis will thrive.