Memphis Makeover 

Where are Clinton and Stacy when you need them?

The hosts of TLC's What Not to Wear can be a little harsh when appraising their victims' frumpy clothes, frizzy hair, and outdated makeup, but deep down, the duo just wants everyone to put their best foot forward. Sure, they might make their victims cry, but they also make them look good. And let's face it: Memphis needs a makeover.

The Memphis Regional Chamber unveiled findings recently from the earliest stage of a comprehensive labor study. The study seeks to strengthen the region's ability to create high-paying jobs and be successful in a "knowledge economy." Drawing from the responses of eight focus groups, the study identified a few assets in the region - an adaptable workforce, a distribution hub, available land - but it also identified several challenges, including a weak office-space base, the lack of a research-focused university, unsolved racial issues, a declining number of math and science graduates, and a questionable work ethic.

Though we don't have Clinton or Stacy on our side, we do have Melissa Rivers. (Only, not the one who works the red carpet.)

"We have to be very honest with ourselves: Who are we? What is our labor force made up of?" says Rivers, the chamber's director of regionalism. "What are our strengths and what can we market right now? What are our weaknesses? The point is not to disparage the region, but to say here is a really quantifiable starting point."

The weaknesses were not identified by actual data (although there's probably some to back them up) but were simply the perceptions of the focus-group members. Not surprisingly, the report also mentioned a problem with the region's image and lack of self-esteem.

"It confirmed what we all already knew. You hear about it when you're out at dinner with friends. You hear about it at business meetings. This is the perception. It's important to note that these were very subjective," says Rivers.

Memphis has been here before, at least once, with the Talent Magnet project in 2002. That study also said we needed to reinvigorate our image, but I'm not sure how much was done after it was published. I'd hate to think that we're clinging to cotton and Elvis the same way some people hold onto a hairdo until it's a hairdon't.

"The positive thing about it," says Rivers, "is that the attendees said, We want to throw in our vote. Throughout the focus group process, it was, We understand there's a problem, but we're glad someone is calling us together to find a solution."

The workforce labor study hopes to find the best style to complement Memphis' assets. One of the goals is to identify a different marketing strategy, one that will tap into what kind of industry the Memphis area is best suited for and what is the best way to target those industries.

"Texas is going after wind energy. Well, we're not suited for that," says Rivers. "We're more suited to food processing or auto suppliers, so that's what we need to go after."

They may sound like mere cosmetic changes - a little bit of cover-up and a dab of lipgloss won't solve Memphis' real problems. But maybe the study will help build a new image or, better yet, a new brand for Memphis. Sometimes a makeover can be the first step. If that image injection could lure any new talent or new industry here, we're that much closer to being a more attractive city.

I don't want anyone to mistake me for Pollyanna (doubtful, I know), but a more positive image for the city could do some good.

That and some conditioner. This humidity is a real killer when it comes to hair. n

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