Memphis Ranks High On List of Poor Communities 

Study finds that Memphis is the country’s second-most economically distressed city, just behind Detroit.

More than half of Memphians live in economically distressed communities.

That's according to a new study from a Washington think tank identifying these areas in the hopes that Congress will use tax incentives and other means to lure more jobs and businesses to the places that need them most.

The report is from the Economic Innovation Group (EIG), launched earlier this year by some of the heaviest hitters in Silicon Valley, including Facebook billionaire Sean Parker and tech financier Ron Conway. 

The report shows that 68 percent of the population of Memphis lives in economic distress. EIG arrived at this number by blending government data on educational attainment, housing vacancy rates, unemployment rates, poverty levels, median income levels, changes in employment, and the percentage of businesses opening and closing within certain zip codes. 

"Six years after the official end of the Great Recession, many communities across America continue to suffer from the uneven economic recovery," said EIG co-founder and executive director Steve Glickman.  "As our Distressed Communities Index demonstrates, geography matters, particularly for the millions of Americans who continue to find a shortage of good jobs, stagnant wages, and few opportunities in their own backyards."

Memphis ranked second on the list of most distressed large cities, between number one — Detroit — where 94 percent of the population lives in economic distress, and number three — Milwaukee — where the figure is 55 percent. The list is completed with Atlanta, Baltimore, Fresno, Las Vegas, Chicago, Tucson, and Houston.

The report found the most distressed zip codes in each city. Two of the four most distressed zip codes in Tennessee were in Memphis — 38108 and 38126.  The South Memphis zip code 38126 runs from Third Street on the west to I-240 on the east and Martin Luther King Boulevard on the north and McLemore Avenue on the south. The North Memphis zip code 38108 is bounded by I-40 on the north and Chelsea Avenue on the south and Midtown I-240 on the west and I-40 on the east. 

These two zip codes should be congressional targets for federal aid and tax incentives, according to EIG, in hopes that the money will lure investors to open businesses and add jobs.  

Efforts to expand business in targeted Memphis communities is already happening. The MEMShop program's slogan is simply "building business, revitalizing communities," and it acts as a neighborhood-centric business incubator. It was founded through the work of the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team (MIDT). 

Abby Miller, project manager for the MIDT, said the best way to spark business in communities is to "go granular." Each neighborhood is different, she said, so no single approach works for all of them. But a near-universal challenge in all of them was the lack of up-to-code commercial space. Property owners had not made investments in their buildings, and fixing them up was a huge cost barrier for start-up entrepreneurs. Then, of course, there were the standard Memphis problems of blight and crime, she said. 

"The best approach we took in the most distressed areas was to help local entrepreneurs build and grow their businesses in their neighborhood," Miller said.  "In Soulsville, for example, our most successful work was Pop-up Ville, a program that provided hyper-local business services, like business planning and credit repair for local entrepreneurs, and Soulsville Saturday, a monthly pop-up market where entrepreneurs could test their products and businesses."

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