Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Planes, Boats, and Trains

They’re BAAACK! Aerotropolis and steamboats in the news.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 2, 2011 at 10:55 AM

And now for a word about the Memphis economy.

Actually several thousand words. A new book, Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next, devotes a chapter to Memphis and FedEx. The Wall Street Journal included Memphis in a weekend story about airport hubs called "Cities of the Sky." Mayor A C Wharton urged critics of incentives for Electrolux and Mitsubishi Electric to take a look at competing cities. And the Riverfront Development Corporation said it has a steamboat prospect for Beale Street Landing.

Each report contains a mixture of hype, error, and fact. Since aerotropolis is the biggest deal, I'll start there.

Greg Lindsay, the co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next (with John Kasarda, who coined the word), also wrote the article in The Wall Street Journal, which puts Memphis in the same league as Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, and Bangalore because of the FedEx superhub.

An aerotropolis, he writes, "can be narrowly defined as a city planned around its airport." An aerotropolis "is an amalgam of made-to-order office parks, convention hotels, cargo complexes, and even factories, which in some cases line the runways" as well as "world-class architecture" and huge private investments.

Memphis International Airport is certainly easy to get in and out of, but mainly because it is not crowded. Passenger counts are off 25 percent from pre-9/11 levels. The architecture, including the future passenger transfer building and parking garage, is nice enough but hardly world-class.

Of course, it is their cargo hubs for FedEx and UPS that make Memphis and Louisville the envy of would-be aerotropoli (sic).

From the article: "Not so long ago, those cities were Southern Rust Belt towns. They have been saved by companies like Amazon and Zappos, which set up shop around the air hubs."

Southern Rust Belt? I think that would be Birmingham. Zappos is an online shoe company with a facility 12 miles from the airport in Louisville. Amazon announced last year that it will build a big distribution center that will employ 1,400 people in Chattanooga, 300 miles from Memphis. But Memphis does have big distribution centers for Nike and scores of other companies. Point granted.

Lindsay paints a more accurate picture of Memphis in the book. He actually spent time driving around the airport, and his observations are spot on. He notes the "rusting industrial parks clinging like barnacles to the airport's west side." He gets a tour of Whitehaven and Brooks Road and learns about our ever-expanding circle of sprawl and low-end jobs.

This particular aerotropolis, in his words, "still has a long way to go." When the Airport Cities World Conference & Exposition comes to Memphis in April, guests will convene at the Peabody.

Giving his own take on economic development, Wharton last week told critics of incentives to "read" and quit yapping. A review of the big catches and incentives in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama in the last 20 years shows that Memphis paid less to get less and is still not in the car manufacturing game.

Mitsubishi Electric and Electrolux are third-round picks compared to first-round choices like Nissan, Hyundai, Toyota, Mercedes, and Volkswagen. The cities and states in the Southern car empire paid dearly to play but got thousands of jobs in return: Mercedes in Alabama, $253 million; Nissan in Mississippi, $363 million; Nissan in Middle Tennessee, $197 million; Volkswagen in Chattanooga, $577 million; Toyota in Tupelo, $296 million; Hyundai in Montgomery, $234 million. Electrolux and Mitsubishi Electric, which will build their plants near Presidents Island and the river port, got about $170 million combined in incentives.

Finally, the Great American Steamboat Company might be coming to Memphis. Possibly 250 to 500 jobs! Scenic paddlewheelers disgorging tourists flush with cash on our shores! A majestic Beale Street Landing for a bargain price of under $40 million!

Except there is no company currently plying the waters of the Mighty Mississippi. Paddlewheelers are nostalgic, pretty to look at, a fine place to have a drink, expensive to insure, and have small rooms with low ceilings. See the Delta Queen, moored on the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga.

Only a cynic would suggest that this announcement was timed to coincide with Memphis City Council capital-improvement budget discussions and the fact that the Riverfront Development Corporation needs $8 million to finish Beale Street Landing and would like taxpayers to fork it over.

So call me a cynic.

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