Choice City 

Naysayers have long dismissed creative-class initiatives, but losing those workers has a direct impact on the tax base. As part of a new plan, the city is trying to attract and retain them.

Memphis mayor A C Wharton is looking for "game changers."

"We want to make this a place where people say I live here because I want to live here. I'm not trapped here," Wharton said.

Last week, Wharton revealed a plan to the City Council to make Memphis a "City of Choice," saying it was critical to build on the city's distinctive strengths in music, tourism, logistics, and medical care.

"Where are we first? Best? And only?" he asked.

In doing so, Wharton hopes to create a city where talented workers are developed or attracted, and the poor "have an opportunity to move into the economic mainstream."

"We need to focus on human capital," he said.

In the last few years, much has been said about talent retention, the creative class, and why cities need young professionals, and there has been just as much said about why that is crap.

But what it comes down to is economics.

A city's tax base relies on its working population. In Memphis, where senior citizens get a property-tax freeze, that is especially so.

As managing director of Public Financial Management, Marlin Mosby was the city's financial consultant for more than 20 years.

When Mosby looks at Memphis' tax rate, he doesn't see inefficiency or corruption; he sees a demographics problem. In Shelby County, about 12 percent of the population are young professionals aged 25 to 34 who have a four-year college degree.

In comparison, almost a quarter of the county's population is school-aged children. In most areas, school-aged children make up about a fifth of the population.

"If you look at the difference in the percentage of school-aged children we have versus the percentage of school-aged children in Nashville ... it works out to be about $200 million a year that is a direct result of the fact that we have a higher proportion of school-aged children," Mosby said. "For every working family, we have to spend more money to finance schools."

But the proportions aren't off because of a high birth rate. They're the result of more workers leaving Memphis than moving here.

In 25 years of staffing his Memphis office, Mosby's had two people willing to come to Memphis who didn't have family ties here. And neither stayed long.

"In the past 18 years, we've suffered a net loss of three young professionals a day," said Gwyn Fisher, executive director of MPACT Memphis. "The data is starting to show that in the latter years of the Herenton administration, that exodus increased. The most recent data is showing five young professionals and five middle-class families a day — that's our net loss."

It seems Memphis needs to attract and retain talented workers to the region. But the naysayers are right, too, saying we need to woo companies.

MPACT recently released data from its Voice of MPACT, a survey of 1,500 young professionals that's the first of its kind in the nation.

"Nobody has ever asked young professionals what it would take to keep us here," Fisher said.

Of the 25- to 34-year-olds surveyed, half of them said it wasn't very likely they would live in Memphis in 10 years. And as important as amenities are, most cited a lack of career opportunities.

"Seventy percent of young professionals are looking to leave for better job opportunities," said Fisher when asked what surprised her about the study. "They're not leaving because of crime or education. It's because we can't provide enough jobs for them. We can put all the effort in the world to reduce crime and poverty, but if we can't create jobs and attract industries, then young professionals won't want to live here."

So where do we stand? Given the current trends, we're basically paying to educate Atlanta's future workforce. Something has to change.

Wharton said the City of Choice plan is about turning what are sometimes seen as negatives into positives, such as Memphis' status as a majority African-American city or the high number of school children.

"They're sometimes seen as problems. Let's flip that. Let's see them as a competitive advantage," Wharton said of the students.

To do that, we're going to have to find a way to keep them here. There are certainly no guarantees, but you might call it our first, best, and only plan.

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