When Memphians think of the "professionals" working on Brooks Road, executives at multi-national corporations are not the first people who come to mind. Working girls are.
"You think prostitution," says Maggie Conway, with the Memphis Shelby County Office of Economic Development. Conway was one of 60 public- and private-sector representatives participating in last week's task force on the Brooks Road corridor, an area that includes Smith & Nephew, Graceland, and the Black Tail Shake Joint. But seizing upon the idea that the Brooks Road area is key to the city's economic growth, local leaders are formulating a plan to reduce crime, as well as revitalize and beautify the area.
The session was led and paid for by Johnson Controls' MetroMarket program, a strategy to rejuvenate inner-city areas. The Fortune 100 company has led similar initiatives in Detroit, Chicago, and New Orleans. Because of the potential for both the biotech industry and an aerotropolis, Johnson Controls actually chose two areas in Memphis -- Brooks Road and the Medical District -- on which to focus.
"In many cities, it's disconnected," says Eric Reisner, vice president for strategic programs. "There are charter schools doing great things, but they're over here. There's a redevelopment zone, but it's over there."
Judging by all the people who attended at least portions of the meeting -- mayors A C Wharton and Willie Herenton, regional chamber head John Moore, City Council members, district attorney general Bill Gibbons, Memphis police chief Larry Godwin, as well as representatives from Medtronic, Smith & Nephew, and MLGW -- this group is pretty well connected.
After identifying several problems with the area -- pockets of blight, a culture of crime, too many empty buildings, and incompatible land uses -- the group narrowed its focus to a few things they want to see happen soon: reducing crime in the corridor, dedicating resources and a staff to the task, and rebranding and revitalizing the area.
Brooks Road has been down this path before. Almost a decade ago, city leaders tried to deal with crime and blight, but efforts fizzled. Now, however, Brooks Road seems to be of vital importance to the city.
"This area has to change," says Moore. "We hope this leads to a 25-year plan on what the aerotropolis is going to look like. Twenty-five years ago, we said we wanted to be America's distribution center, and we did that. But it's not just America anymore. It's the world."
The aerotropolis is an economic model focused around the airport city. Developed by University of North Carolina professor John Kasarda, the theory is that in a world where speed and logistics are paramount in business, the area around an airport can be the heart of a growing economy. As the world's busiest cargo airport, Memphis is currently the nation's best example of an aerotropolis but will have to fight to stay that way.
"It stands to reason that we should have the safest and most beautiful environment around that global asset," says Moore. "We need to move more goods faster and cheaper. The question is: Are we going to let it evolve on its own or are we going to plan it? ... The Brooks Road corridor is a huge piece of the puzzle."
At the meeting, I heard that when Smith & Nephew brings visiting surgeons to their campus on Brooks Road, they pick them up at the airport and instead of driving straight down Brooks, they use the highway.
Smith & Nephew spokesman Victor Rocha asked the group responsible for the company's VIPs and found out that wasn't the case ... currently. "When I told the visiting surgeons unit about it, they said, 'That's a great idea. We may start doing that,'" says Rocha. When asked why, he says, "Have you seen Brooks Road lately?"
Between the airport and Smith & Nephew on Brooks, there are a number of adult establishments -- including the Black Tail Shake Joint which used to have a large telltale tail as its entrance -- and an adult bookstore.
There has been a lot of discussion recently about strip clubs and their effect on the city. Using nuisance ordinances, attorney general Gibbons has waged a very public campaign against adult entertainment. A case against Black Tail is pending from an August raid, and Gibbons' office is seeking a temporary restraining order to close the club pending trial. Meanwhile, the city has been criticized for spending a lot of singles on a strip-club study.
Generally, land near airports is a catchall for uses that no one else wants. In pursuing the idea of the aerotropolis, we need to think about that land as a very valuable commodity.
For many people, the Brooks Road corridor is their first, and sometimes only, impression of Memphis. With a little work, we can show them an asset, instead of asses.