Thursday, November 13, 2003

Talent Magnet or Brain Drain?

Memphis joins the fray in "a Darwinian fight for survival" of the fittest.

Posted By on Thu, Nov 13, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Why do you live here? Or why don't you live here?

Good questions, and not just conversation starters. More and more cities -- Memphis among them -- really want to know.

Because highly skilled, college-educated, mobile, young Americans have a choice. The buzz matters. And a consensus is growing that cities, like college football or basketball programs, can improve themselves and bring in a better recruiting class. They can either be "talent magnets" like Atlanta, Seattle, Austin, and Denver or fall into the dreaded "brain drain" ranks along with Cleveland, Detroit, and Buffalo.

Last weekend, The Washington Post published a long two-part story on all of this. The lead, by writer Blaine Harden, was priceless: "In a Darwinian fight for survival, American cities are scheming to steal each other's young." The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a series on the "quiet crisis," and The Denver Post did a similar story a week ago. The New York Times has a reporter in Memphis this week looking into the local Talent Magnet project.

Some of this reporting points out the obvious. Is it lost on anyone in the South that Atlanta long ago left Birmingham, Memphis, and Jackson in the dust? Or that Austin, Ann Arbor, and Oxford are above-all college towns, and college graduates like college towns? There is more than a whiff of class and race bias when Detroit is compared to Minneapolis or Stockton, California, to San Diego.

The underlying premise, however, is that a place's destiny is not all in the demographic cards. Cities can prosper by reinventing themselves by not only the old method of recruiting industries and companies but by attracting talented people with well-endowed enterprise zones and quality-of-life features. Artists, writers, techies, musicians, and gays are the new coveted class. Creative people, in turn, will create the new companies and industries.

Memphis got into this game early on thanks largely to the efforts of the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce and Carol Coletta, creator and host of the syndicated public-radio program Smart City.

Few cities are better suited to such an experiment than Memphis with its history of entrepreneurial companies, its population ebb and flow from white flight to downtown revival, its competition with Nashville, and especially its racial balance. Those lists of America's "best cities" often look like America's whitest cities. What works in Memphis has to be color-blind.

At the local level, it's plain that some schools and neighborhoods are talent magnets. The county school system as a whole and Memphis optional schools like White Station High School and John P. Freeman Elementary are thriving. The performance gap between them and the have-nots grows wider every few years because under a choice policy many of the best-and-brightest students from all over cluster in the best schools.

The harder question is whether cities or even whole regions can primp and preen and in general make themselves more attractive. In her new book, The End of Detroit, author Micheline Maynard (a recent guest on Smart City) describes how Kentucky and Tennessee and, more recently, Alabama, Texas, and Mississippi lured American, German, and Japanese car manufacturers with cheaper labor and incentives. But industrial relocation and factory jobs aren't the focus of the talent magnet and brain-drain stories. The new recruiting targets individuals.

The upside is enormous, of course, if the catch is a St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Southeastern Asset Management, Saturn, or Dell. One Memphis entrepreneur has said that location, weather, airport infrastructure, political support, and local ties were the main reasons he chose Memphis over Louisville and Nashville, "but if Nashville had come in and made a big pitch, who knows?" His name: FedEx founder Fred Smith.

The chamber of commerce says by its calculations Nashville is attracting newcomers much more successfully than Memphis. But the grass always looks greener somewhere else. Earlier this year, an editorial titled "Nashville Population Declining" ran in the weekly Nashville Scene: "If you want something to get really worried about, chew on this: people are fleeing Nashville. ... In a nutshell, we're losing rich folks and replacing them with smaller numbers of poor folks."

If you haven't noticed, reporters and professors and researchers get paid to spot trends and will do their damnedest to find them. When a lot of them simultaneously start producing thumb-suckers about a quiet crisis, sprawl without growth, a brain-drain, or a talent magnet, it can only mean one thing: They're on to something or they're not. I happen to think they are, but then I'm a reporter.

E-mail: branston@memphisflyer.com

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