Photo by jive667 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
From King Cotton to the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, Memphis has been at the forefront in countless economic and cultural developments since its founding in 1819. More recently, however, competition and the Great Recession have forced the city to play catchup. A 2014 report by the Brookings Institution identified some big challenges. In fact, the city ranked in the bottom half of large metros on most measures of economic performance, including productivity and wages.
That report didn’t offer a postmortem, however. Instead, it offered a roadmap for transforming the metro Memphis economy in four ways: solidifying the region as the preeminent center for multi-modal movement of goods; establishing the region as an innovation hub, especially in diagnostic services and medical devices; improving workforce skills and access to career jobs; and becoming a model of regional collaboration. As the report noted, “Metro Memphis possesses considerable assets and strengths from which to build.”
Memphis has a strong foundation to build on in its five key business sectors: transportation, distribution and logistics; manufacturing; headquarters and business services; agriculture and ag tech; and medical devices.
Take that first sector. Thanks to the FedEx World Hub, Memphis International Airport is the second busiest air cargo airport in the world.
But that’s just one way the city moves goods. Memphis is one of only four U.S. cities served by five Class I rail systems, allowing goods to get to 45 states, Canada and Mexico by rail within 48 hours. Trucks out of Memphis can reach 187.6 million people in 152 metro markets overnight. And then there’s the mighty Mississippi. The Port of Memphis is the fifth largest inland port in the country and generates more customs duties than most major U.S. seaports, including New Orleans. It seems that Old Man River really does just keep rollin’ along.
Living large on the Levee
When he wasn’t on the road, Elvis Presley famously lived large in Memphis. His 17,552-square-foot Graceland mansion featured everything from a 15-foot-long sofa to an indoor waterfall in the Jungle Room.
But you don’t have to be rock ’n’ roll royalty to live large here. According to a 2019 study, Memphis boasts the lowest cost of living among America’s 50 largest cities when you combine taxes, housing, groceries, transportation costs and healthcare costs. A Memphian earning $100,000 would have an astonishing $46,093 left over for discretionary spending.
By comparison, someone making that salary in San Francisco would come up $2,734 short before buying her first latte. Housing costs are the biggest difference, according to Jeff Wallace, Ph.D., of the University of Memphis’s Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research. “For the price of a broom closet in San Francisco, a nice family home can be rented or purchased in Memphis,” he wrote in a 2019 report. “The high cost of living in San Francisco is a real barrier to entry to young professionals and entrepreneurs trying to make their mark on the world.” (Of course, similar comparisons could be made between many coastal and heartland cities.)
So what can Memphians do with all their spare cash? In addition to Graceland, major attractions include the National Civil Rights Museum, the Pink Palace Museum and a host of music-related attractions, including the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. And Memphis is home to the NBA’s Grizzlies, who immigrated from Vancouver, B.C., in 2001. Although they’ve missed the playoffs the last two years, they feel their future, like their host city’s, is bright.
And if you're into the Delta Blues, you have to hang out on Beale Street, almost two miles of great music and parties.
Living on the EDGE
One way Memphis is working toward a bright future is through EDGE (Economic Development Growth Engine), the economic development agency for the City of Memphis and Shelby County Government. EDGE coordinates incentive programs and fosters public/private partnerships designed to create jobs, grow the economy, revitalize neighborhoods, attract investments, spark innovation and encourage entrepreneurship.
Since its creation in 2011, EDGE has shepherded 181 projects that have led to $5.7 billion in capital investment and 32,789 jobs with an average wage of $66,862.
If you’re keeping score, that wage is nearly $13,000 more than the city’s average cost of living, giving those workers extra money to spend on themselves in the city they call home.