University of North Carolina professor John Kasarda, the keynote speaker at the Regional Chamber's annual Chairman's Membership Luncheon last week, says that airports are the key to future urban economic development. And, more importantly, Memphis is leading the way.
Kasarda is a man who spends a lot of time in and thinking about airports. Under his concept of the aerotropolis -- recently cited by The New York Times as one of the most intriguing new ideas of the year -- Kasarda talks about a switch from the "city airport" to the "airport city."
The aerotropolis has retail, restaurants, leisure, and culture located inside the airport. There are hotels, offices, distribution centers, convention centers, and foreign trade zones next to and clustered around the airport. The area becomes a destination in itself, not just a place to travel through. And as businesses grow in the sector, so do residential areas.
Historically, the aerotropolis makes perfect sense. As transportation infrastructure has changed, cities have developed as seaports, then on rivers and canals, later around railroads and, most recently, highway systems. Now, with ever increasing globalization, speed is paramount to business. Or as Kasarda says, "It's not the big companies eating the small anymore; it's the fast eating the slow."
And that means businesses clustering around airports, looking to shave off hours, even minutes.
"If you look at aerial photographs of these airports, it looks like sprawl," says Kasarda. "But when you measure routes in terms of time and cost, you begin to see highly calculated movements. It's not just the spatial distance -- time and cost is key."
Due in large part to FedEx, Kasarda sees Memphis as America's leading aerotropolis. He calls it "the engine" of the city's economic growth, citing statistics that one in four metro jobs are tied to the airport.
Though Memphis International has six major and 16 commuter airlines and 279 scheduled daily departures, cargo has a much greater multiplier effect on the city's economic growth than passenger travel. Memphis is the world's busiest cargo airport. I have to assume that has something to do with the world's largest DVD distribution center being located here or the city's industry of overnight, drug-testing labs.
As I listened to Kasarda talk about the future, I was reminded of various airport experiences I've had: the time I was flying back from Miami and -- on a whim -- got a mani/pedi while waiting for my flight. And how the Orlando airport is all open and light, with wicker chairs everywhere, so when you arrive, you feel like you're already on vacation, and when you're leaving, like you're still on vacation.
And I thought about taking my sister back to Memphis International after she visited a few weekends ago.
My sister and I are close, so when I drove her to the airport, I decided to wait with her. She checked in and we looked around for a place to sit. Let's just say, there were certainly no wicker chairs.
We ended up going down to baggage claim, buying a Coke from the vending machine, and then sitting under the harsh fluorescents for about an hour. I hate to say it, but for all the renovations done to the main concourse -- the Memphis restaurants, the snazzy new logo -- the rest of the airport definitely says 'welcome to America's distribution center.' It's like hanging out in a warehouse.
One could say, well, we're already the closest thing to an aerotropolis that America has. But I don't think that's good enough. Not only is the airport the first and last thing most people see when they visit Memphis, if the aerotropolis is an airport city, ours feels a little like Cleveland.
The idea of the aerotropolis has already taken off -- both on the ground here and in the nation's consciousness with mentions like the one in the Times and stories in magazines such as Fast Company. It's growing right here, right now. But Kasarda's critical question for the business community pointedly asked about the city's plans for its future.
"Is it forming in an organized, economically efficient, aesthetically pleasing, and environmentally sustainable manner?" he asked. "Or is it developing spontaneously, in an economically inefficient, unsightly, and ultimately unsustainable manner?"
The aerotropolises currently developing in parts of Asia are being carefully planned, but then, those airports are being located in areas with plenty of land. Memphis' challenge will be to shape what's already developed around the airport and carefully cultivate other opportunities.
Anything less will just slow us down.