Changing Family Trees

The Memphis Region’s Innovative Approach to Economic Development Metrics

Published on Apr 14, 2022

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Drew Repp

The Memphis region wasn’t satisfied with the status quo. Like many communities, they were heading in the right direction but knew they could do better and needed to do it faster. “I think it had become clear to the community that by doing what we had done historically, we were trudging along doing fine. But if we wanted to be exceptional and see our region really reach its potential, we needed to do things differently,” said Apryl Childs-Potter, Chief Marketing Officer at the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce and Executive Director of The Center for Economic Competitiveness.

In early 2020 the Chamber was already in the process of developing an indicators dashboard for economic development. Then in March, the same week the world came to its Covid halt, Memphis learned it was one of the three cities that would take part in the Inclusive Economic Indicators Lab of Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. The one-year lab focuses on developing tools for tracking and driving inclusive economic outcomes that drive economic competitiveness.

While going through the Brookings Lab, the Chamber also pulled together a steering committee to try and triage the impacts of Covid and formulate a recovery plan. These three parallel paths—a desire to change their economic development path, the Brookings Lab work, and the need to recover from Covid—all merged into the same lane. The result was the Center for Economic Competitiveness (CFEC).

To change the status quo and change how they were doing things, Memphis first had to change how they were seeing things. This meant looking at success differently and the metrics that would tell them if they were moving in the direction of success—and how quickly.

The result is the CFEC and the Memphis region setting a new standard in data-driven benchmarks and metrics for economic development. This new standard recognizes that when the goal and metric are the same, often regions focus on the wrong initiatives or create programs with unintended consequences. For example, it’s not good when the goal is to increase job creation, and the metric used to determine if the region is moving that needle is also job creation. “We wanted to be able to look at these micro metrics underneath these broader categories and say, ‘Hey, if we want to improve GDP, if we want to improve productivity, we have to focus on some of these cascade down metrics,’” said Childs-Potter.

A Different Kind of Regional Dashboard

The title, subtitle, and opening statement of CFEC’s People Powered Prosperity dashboard tell you this isn’t another economic overview. For starters, the title leads with what Memphis believes is the most important thing in any community: its people. The subtitle tells you what they see as foundational to power their economy: thriving households. And in the first statement, those two elements are put together as the key to achieving a prosperous future: thriving people.

It’s not that job creation, GDP, capital investment, and other traditional economic development metrics aren’t important or worthy goals. It’s that the indicators used for a community to know if they are moving towards achieving those goals are different from the goals themselves. What are those indicators? The dashboard categorizes them in three areas.

1. Economic Foundations

Greater Memphis establishes people as the foundation of its economy. Their MemMeasures report emphasizes what that looks like: “Healthy foundations stabilize economic and socio-economic insecurities, empower access to new growth and opportunity, and cast the conditions that are necessary for broad-based prosperity to be achieved.” 

Job access and economic stability are the critical elements of this category and include metrics such as:

  • Percent of the population with broadband connectivity

  • Population with a commute time of fewer than 20 minutes

  • Number of employees by census tract

  • Percent of the population spending more than 30% of income on housing

  • Percent food insecure individuals

2. Economic Enablers

This category of metrics will sound a bit more familiar to economic developers. Elements of economic enablers include talent; workforce and occupational quality; innovation; and economic presence and industry diversity. 

MemMeasures sums it up this way, “Workers must have access to a diverse range of quality opportunities and be able to participate and benefit from the regional economy. In this regard, growing the presence of quality and opportunity jobs offers the greatest likelihood of improving the outlook for individual jobseekers in the market.” 

This category includes, among others, the metrics of:

  • STEM graduate growth

  • Associate degree attainment

  • Growth in STEM occupations

  • Presence of opportunity/quality jobs

  • Per capita NIH funding

  • Entrepreneurial investment

  • Per capita GDP

3. Prosperous Economic Outcomes

This category stays focused on the desired ends but doesn’t look at them merely in economic terms. Ultimately, successful outcomes mean “an improving standard of living and narrowing racial and economic gaps that undergird the region’s long-term stability and resiliency.” That’s quite a bit different from the standard job growth and capital investment goals.

Again, that’s not to say those aren’t included in the metrics, indeed they are. But they aren’t the primary goal. Improving the standard of living is. To tell them if they are advancing toward that goal, they track metrics such as:

  • Percentage of households above the ALICE threshold

  • Percentage of households in poverty

  • GINI coefficient (a summary measure of income inequality)

  • Employment rate gap between white and Black or Hispanic origin

In all, there are more than 40 metrics that the CFEC is tracking in its People Powered Prosperity Dashboard and Benchmark.Yet, amazingly, it’s only a tool. And perhaps this is what sets Greater Memphis apart. Many EDOs, having come up with a comprehensive set of metrics to monitor, would stop here. But Greater Memphis and its partners realize that the power of this data is it shows them where to focus. That is, now that they see things differently, they can do things differently.

“We wanted to stand up the Center to be a catalyst organization to help think and do things differently, we call it our think and do tank,” reflected Childs-Potter. There are three specific ways this new data-driven approach is helping them to do things differently.

Recover Faster from Covid than the Great Recession

As mentioned earlier, the CFEC grew out of a number of parallel efforts. One of which was the lessons from the last economic crisis. It took Greater Memphis nearly 10 years to recover from the Great Recession. It wasn’t until January 2018 that the region returned to pre-Great Recession job numbers. When Covid hit, regional leaders knew they could not afford another 10-year recovery. They had to do things differently.

Greater Memphis job growth.

A primary goal of the CFEC is to use data to steer a series of initiatives for jobs and investment that will result in a quicker and more effective recovery from Covid. 

“One of the learnings we had was that a key challenge in recovery from the 2008 recession was that we didn’t have the same type of data-driven infrastructure to help drive economic development and workforce strategy that some of our peer markets had,” said Childs-Potter.

Compete in the Global Market and with Peers

Across Foundations, Enablers, and Outcomes the 40 indicators are not merely tracked, but benchmarked against peers. Recovering quickly means the region will need to compete with other markets for jobs and investment. And like in any contest, you need to know your competition and how you match up. 

Peer markets were selected based on their similarity in population size and industry composition. Geography was also a selection factor, as they wanted their peer regions to have the same geographical benefits as Memphis. Now when they measure their indicators, it’s being done against peer markets, not just against themselves. After all, what good is it if you improve in an area but your competition improves even more?

“I think one of the things that Lightcast helped us do that’s been really powerful is address the anecdotal by looking at comparative data with other peer markets,” added Childs-Potter.  

As the CFEC steers programs and initiatives, they can continually ask of those efforts: how will this help us compete with our peers and what would it take to make Memphis more competitive? As fresh data is released, they are able to determine if they are improvingsustaining, or worsening in relation to their peers.

Growth That Benefits All

Quicker recovery and more competitiveness are two ways Memphis is using data to do things differently. Both of those are also focused on how economic growth can be achieved differently, too.

“We started to really infuse our conversation through the lens of inclusion and equity as well. To say, how can we not only figure out how we recover, but how can we make that recovery equitable and inclusive, and help that be a catalyst to drive our economy forward?” asked Childs-Potter

MemMeasures has this call to action: “To relentlessly pursue prosperity for all by building an economic system that empowers the economically fragile and delivers quality job growth at a scale that changes our region’s growth trajectory.” And so the indicators include inclusivity measures baked in. Because leaders realize that to recover and compete they need all their citizens prospering, and that if the region recovers and competes without all of its citizens prospering, they aren’t fulfilling their mission.

Center for Economic Competitivenss, People Powered Prosperity Regional Dashboard.

“Genuine prosperity is about far more than a single lens of a region’s economy or an individual’s financial wealth. Prosperity represents an environment which allows individuals to reach their full potential,” states the MemMeasures report. Put another way, GDP or the number of jobs created doesn’t tell you whether economic development efforts are successful, whether people are thriving does.

Changing Family Trees

Last fall Ford Motor Company announced plans to build a new electric vehicle and battery manufacturing plant at the Memphis Regional Megasite in west Tennesse. In a launch video for the CFEC, Chief Economic Development Officer at Greater Memphis, Ted Townsend, recalled how a community leader described such an investment: “It’s changing family trees.”

That’s a different way of seeing economic development. Not as just GDP growth or just tech job growth, but as the people who make up family trees, growing healthier and stronger. And by taking a data-driven approach that starts with people, Greater Memphis is setting a new benchmark of its own: the standard-bearer in economic development metrics.

Lightcast works with organizations like Greater Memphis to help drive economic prosperity for every individual in a community. For more information on how our insights can help your community do this, please get in touch.