Memphis 1999: The Story of the Tortoise

By Ciscel, David H. | Business Perspectives, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Memphis 1999: The Story of the Tortoise


Ciscel, David H., Business Perspectives


Faster does not always mean better. Memphis is an example that taking things slowly can ensure lasting, long-term results.

The Memphis economy is definitely a success story. However, it is a different sort of a success story, because Memphis is a slow-growth economy. Over the past twenty years, many of our competitors have raced to economic success and then slid into economic bust. Meanwhile, Memphis has grown almost every year since the early 1980s and has steadily turned into a regional economic powerhouse. Just like the tortoise from the tale of the tortoise and the hare (remember, "the slow and steady wins the race"?), Memphis has continued to plug along all these years. The economic story of 1999 will be similar to that of the last two decades - slow but steady growth.

The Memphis MSA economy will continue to grow, slowly but surely, in 1999. One only has to look at the success the regional economy experienced during the boom years of the 1990s to understand how the traditional slow growth of the five-county MSA has paid off. For example, in January 1990, the local economy produced 467,000 jobs, while providing 553,400 jobs by January 1998. Assured by past economic indicators, the Bureau of Business and Economic Research projects that the number of jobs in the area should rise to 560,200 in January 1999, which is 6,800 jobs more than in January 1998. By January 2000, jobs in the local economy should reach 571,500 - 11,300 more than in January 1999.

In the recent past, a key to Memphis' economic success has been the city's ability to produce income. Since it is largely a service economy, Memphis is often thought of as a low-wage economy. During the 1990s, however, Memphis' income per capita has grown at rates significantly higher than the economy as a whole (see Table 1).

In the 1980s, Memphis per capita personal income stood at only 91 percent of the national level. However, by 1996, the Memphis economy had performed well enough to move regional personal income to 103 percent of the national rate.

The tortoise of the Memphis economy consists of several components: transportation, health services, gaming and entertainment, trade and construction, and education. Each sector is strong and could be a great economic force on its own. Their co-existence in the same geographic area makes the body of the Memphis economy even stronger.

Transportation

The backbone of the tortoise is the transportation sector. Smaller in employment than other parts of the Memphis economy, transportation is the core of the local value-added contribution, both to the national and the global economies. Transportation in Memphis is no longer just a movement of goods; it is now the movement of goods and information. Memphis' integrated transportation network uses more than just a variety of equipment, such as planes, trains, barges, and trucks. Today, this physical capacity is combined with computer-based information technology. Transportation is the area of growth that gives Memphis its competitive advantage; it suits the city's geography, as well as its infrastructure and workforce. Consequently, as has been the case in recent years, it will be the success of transportation that will lead the economy of Memphis in 1999.

Table 1
Per Capita Personal Income, Selected Areas, 1980-1996

                   1980      1985      1990      1995      1996

U.S.              $10,037   $14,464   $19,220   $23,233   $24,294
Tennessee           8,145    11,892    16,328    21,350    22,032
Memphis MSA         9,145    13,203    18,258    24,048    24,945
Nashville MSA       9,242    14,227    18,845    25,507    26,262
Memphis/US          91.1%     91.3%     95.0%    103.5%    102.7%
Memphis/TN         112.3%    111.0%    111.8%    112.6%    113.2%

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Health Services

The health services sector, one of the four legs supporting the Memphis tortoise, seems to live under continuous threats of restructuring. …

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