How three cities overcame some of the same challenges Memphis faces

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Memphis is a city on a mission for greatness.

It’s a city on the edge, a city divided. But it’s ours, and this is our chance for a better tomorrow.

It’s time to heal old wounds, and create new stories of success, by educating our children and by making sure there are enough jobs and everyone feels safe in their own home.

In this chapter of Memphis: On a Mission, WREG’s April Thompson explores how cities facing the some of the same issues as Memphis found a way to come together and grow despite the challenges.

Nashville, the self-dubbed Music City Capital, seems to hit all the right notes when it comes to exciting new places to visit and live. Nashville's mayor was even summoned to Memphis as part of a public presentation by the Memphis Flyer to reveal the secret to Nashville’s success.

“We played on our strengths, which is diversity, healthcare, hospitality and universities,” Mayor Karl Dean said.

Nashville did something extraordinary that turned things around, increased its population, and got everyone talking: it built on its country music legacy and focused on making people feel safe by opening new police precincts and even its own crime lab.

Dean says Nashville’s metro form of government removed a lot of duplication of services and expanded its tax base, which meant it could pump more into education and business recruiting.

Nashville is clearly a city on the move. Three hours away, some people think Memphis is stuck in the past, still living with the mark of the place civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.

If Memphis has a problem shaking its past, it need look no further than 200 or so miles southeast to Birmingham, Ala., a city with its own civil rights institute and lessons of a community divided during the civil rights era. Etched in the fabric of this iron and steel town are the memories of four little girls killed in a 1963 church bombing.

As they do in Memphis at the site where Dr. King was killed, tourists still flock to the church. But Birmingham has found a way to move past the stigma and use the tragedy that occurred here as a source of race relations.

Birmingham Mayor William Bell says while you can’t hide from the past, you also can’t let it define you.

“We are all in the same boat,” he said. “If Birmingham is to prosper, we must all step up and tell the new story of Birmingham and the new South.”

Birmingham came back from the tragedy of the bombing and started focusing on finding common ground all citizens could rally around. Instead of battling with surrounding municipalities, they began to work with them.

Businesses bought in, marketing the region and its workforce, developing an image that would attract people to Birmingham and get them to stay. It worked -- the urban flight shifted, and more people are moving back to the city.

It energized a new generation of young people who formed the non-profit Rev Birmingham , working together to revitalize property and create space for small businesses to move in and alleviating a lot of the tension between city leaders.

“We no long have debates at city hall about should they be supporting the organization working downtown or the one in neighborhoods,” Dave Fleming with Rev Birmingham said. “We are all trying to do the one thing.”

He added it's about working together toward a common vision, something the city known as the Big Easy knows plenty about.

Hurricane Katrina decimated the city of New Orleans, but this city may have the best comeback story of all. The city that saw people fleeing is now the place where people are flocking.

“Number one in entrepreneurship and small business production,” Ben Johnson with the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce said. “We are getting nationally ranked for things we weren't on the radar for before."

The key for New Orleans was collaboration and conversation about what’s really important.

New Orleans began a national marketing campaign, Greater New Orleans, Inc., highlighting the city and the surrounding counties known as parishes. ProsperityNOLA became a rallying point with leadership groups created to focus on growing specific industries like advanced manufacturing, creative digital media, and transportation trade logistics.

Roderick Miller with the New Orleans Business Alliance said, “We try figure out ways to trumpet what is going on in industry and the community so local people will know about it.”

It’s also to attract more businesses. A part of the pitch is tax incentives, with everyone knowing the return on investment for the city.

A key for New Orleans has been leveraging what they have to create something bigger that would get people talking and excited about coming back to the Big Easy. It meant finding a new way to promote an annual event, the essence festival. This year, Power Moves NOLA turned it into a business pitch session, linking venture capitalists who have the dollars with African-American start-up businesses that need the bucks.

That kind of thinking is what city councilman Jared Brossett says makes New Orleans great.

He says leadership sets the tone, so people need to get involved and everyone must be on the same page.

“Elected officials may differ in how you get to a certain place, but it's important that's what forefront in your head is the public,” Brossett said.

Three cities that also have their challenges with crime, budgets and poverty....but cities that found a way to grow and prosper through their problems.


  • KT1128

    Memphis problem is the so called leaders here in this city. It’s has nothing to do with being the site where Dr. King was killed, if anything some tourist come here for that reason. If the leaders focus on keeping crime down here, then and only then will this city be able to move forward. The crime here keeps new businesses from coming here. The only thing that they are good at is rising taxes and forcing people to move from this area.

  • chanceencounterstlm

    I can’t believe they mention Birmingham and New Orleans as examples that Memphis should follow. Those are 2 cities that have major flaws. New Orleans can’t handle disasters or recoveries. The mayor was indited for criminal behavior. I read a story last week about Birmingham being on the top 10 cities with violent crime rate. I guess the reporter felt it was her duty to pick cities with a high African-American populations. Don’t think I’m interested in a story I already feel is inaccurate.

  • Michael

    Nashville has the advantage of being the state capitol. The ‘dirty little secret’ they somehow avoid is their crime rate is nearly identical to Memphis, yet their citizenry doesn’t constantly trash their city. The huge advantage they have is the consolidated government they approved in the 60’s, the same one we didn’t in the 60’s. The trajectory of both cities changed on those votes then. Like the previous commenter said, Birmingham and New Orleans are civic train wrecks that Memphis is eons ahead of, especially is strength of local economy.

  • gypsy lee

    those cities don’t have wharton and his cronies running things, and they proably have a city council who want to
    inprove their city, not like mphs city council only wanting to fill their own pockets

  • langor1

    Prior to Detroit filing the largest municipal bankruptcy ever, Birmingham Alabama (Jefferson county) had that dubious distinction on 11/10/11 when it filed the largest municipal bankruptcy ever. Many people got screwed by that bankruptcy and Birmingham’s bond offerings are barely above junk status. So yeah, there are a lot of similarities between Memphis and Birmingham, but no, Birmingham is certainly not a city to emulate. Ashley and April, do you guys know that journalism is more than just writing stuff?

  • Outtahere

    The problem in Memphis is that when crimes are committed, all you get is a slap on the wrist. Everone feels they are above the law. Someone needs to crack the whip and hold people accountable for their actions!

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