PROJECTStrong Cities, Strong Communities

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  • Memphis, Tennessee

    Strong Cities, Strong Communities City Profile 

    Janae Ladet and Joseph Schilling
    May 2018

    Local Dynamics and Program Overview

    Memphis is Tennessee’s largest city with a current population just over 650,000. Over the past eight years, the city’s population has remained roughly the same.1 This is a slight improvement compared with the loss of more than 30,000 residents from 2000 to 2010.2 Sprawl remains one of the drivers for Memphis’ stagnant growth as jobs and residents fled the city for other communities within Shelby County. Between 1970 and 2010, Memphis’s population increased 4 percent, while the city’s geographic area increased 55 percent (Barlow, Pacello, and Whitehead 2016). The city has long struggled with poverty, vacant homes, and abandoned buildings, along with high crime and dwindling public-sector capacity.

    Racial disparities and socioeconomic inequalities in Memphis are persistent and continue to be a struggle. Forty-six percent of black families own homes versus 74 percent of white families. Further, the poverty rate for black households in 2010 was nearly 30 percent but was 7 percent for white households.3

    Memphis is one of the nation’s poorest metropolitan statistical areas; more than a quarter of residents live in poverty. Most residents (45.5 percent) are African American, and they make up 30 percent of the population living in poverty (Delavega 2016). Per Governing magazine, roughly 20 percent of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing.4

    Despite these and other challenges, Memphis has significant economic, social, and cultural assets. It is the home to the headquarters of FedEx, the world’s largest airfreight company. Most jobs within Memphis and Shelby County are related to the trade, transportation, and utilities industries. Memphis is also known as the home of the civil rights movement, blues music, and barbeque that make up part of the city’s Mississippi River culture.

    Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) efforts began in Memphis began in 2011, when the Memphis Community Solutions Team (CST) inventoried and reviewed 42 strategic plans and city reports that over the years had been adopted or endorsed by city leaders (the mayor or city council). These inconsistent goals and ideas made it difficult for then-mayor A. C. Wharton to set a cohesive and consistent direction for his new administration. The CST’s report identified four policy priorities the mayor readily adopted: (1) create safe and vibrant neighborhoods, (2) grow prosperity and opportunity for all, (3) invest in young people, and (4) advance a culture of excellence in government. Considering these four priorities in November 2011, the Memphis CSTs presented a work plan to the mayor, city leaders, and its partners. They also crafted a narrative and communications strategy for these goals. This work plan was the overarching guide for most of the subsequent project work and activities of the CSTs and the two SC2 fellows.

    Two full-time SC2 team members served within the mayor’s office. Other federal agencies important to SC2’s success in Memphis included members of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the US Department of Transportation, and the Federal Aviation Administration. Other part-time SC2 leaders and remote team members represented agencies from the US Department of Labor and the Small Business Administration.

    One SC2 fellow worked in the CEO’s office to develop the Citistat Performance Measurement System, while the second fellow focused on enhancing and expanding partnerships among the city’s universities and colleges to help graduates remain in Memphis. SC2 fellows connected the mayor’s office and staff to share best practices in data-driven performance management to help launch CityStat. Through CityStat, staff from the mayor’s office identified measurable goals and regularly checked progress. The SC2 team helped Memphis model CityStat after the federal government’s HUDStat program called ChoiceStat, a management tracking system that improves government efficiency.

    During his tenure from 2009 to 2015, Mayor Wharton remained a huge SC2 supporter, often praising the initiative for helping transform the city. SC2’s success in Memphis was based on three essential elements: the SC2 team provided an outside perspective on issues that helped overcome roadblocks, identified solutions to locally defined problems that drew on national innovations, and generated additional capacity to city staff to deliver on such efforts.

    The honor of being selected for SC2 has brought Memphis into the center of the national conversation about cities, helping us to find solutions for long‐standing problems, bringing our team a burst of energy and expertise, and cutting through red tape to improve our relationship with the federal government.       

    —Former Memphis Mayor A. C. Wharton5

    Projects and Activities

    Working in close partnership with the mayor, city officials, and their partners, the Memphis CST and SC2 fellows engaged in various capacity-building and technical assistance activities to improve federal and local government relationships. These federal-local collaborations involved trainings, workshops, consultations, and concrete policy and development projects often supported with guidance from the CSTs, federal agencies, and resources. Below, we highlight a few projects and products from the SC2 initiative in Memphis.

    • Department of Justice support on youth violence prevention. Staff from the US Department of Justice coordinated multiple initiatives in Memphis, such as working on youth violence prevention through Shelby County’s Defending Childhood Initiative, the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, and a federal civil rights investigation on the unfair treatment of African American youth. The CST from the Department of Justice also provided technical assistance to the city in responding to a department finding that there were serious systematic failures in the juvenile court system (Abt Associates 2014).
    • Strategic guidance from the Department of Transportation team for a TIGER grant. The Department of Transportation team members provided indirect technical assistance to guide the city as part of its successful application for a $14.9 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant for its Main Street to Main Street Multimodal Connector Project, which improved transportation in downtown Memphis and developed bike and pedestrian trails.
    • River City Capital Investment formation. Team members trained city officials and a local community development organization on how to set up and fund a community development financial institution fund to support small businesses, including identifying relevant US Treasury grant programs. As a result, the River City Capital Investment Corporation was formed.
    • General Services Administration regulations. The SC2 team members helped the city present a case to the General Services Administration (GSA) chief of staff to have the GSA relax certain building regulations for the city, which allowed federal offices to remain in or move to downtown Memphis. The GSA also donated more than 20 computers to the Tennessee Achievement School District.
    • Assistance navigating Department of Transportation red tape. The Department of Transportation team members helped the city cut red tape to finalize the purchase of the American Queen Riverboat, part of an effort to develop the city’s tourism industry. By connecting the city and the GSA, the SC2 team facilitated the city’s purchase of the steamboat, which offers multiday cruises on the Mississippi River and supports local tourism and culture.
    • Increased transit access. SC2 teams worked with city engineers and the Metropolitan Planning Organization to analyze the city’s transportation plans and recommend ways to increase transit access to connect workers to job and neighborhoods.6
    • Health and Human Services documentation of uninsured residents. The SC2 team leads worked with the US Department of Health and Human Services to support the documentation of uninsured residents in Memphis. Team members for the department researched Memphis’s current and future health needs and created “A Profile of the Uninsured in Memphis” and a “Detailed Memphis Health Profile” to prepare the city for an increase in insured Memphians generated by Affordable Care Act in 2014 (Abt 2014).
    • German Marshall Fund city boot camps. As part of the SC2 Fellowship activities, the German Marshall Fund, with a grant from the Surdna Foundation, hosted a series of boot camps to supplement the project work of the fellows and the CSTs. The Memphis boot camps focused on data-driven performance management, talent attraction and retention, and partnerships to support equity and transportation investment. The German Marshall Fund brought experts from Boston and Newark, New Jersey, to examine strategies for designing the city’s philanthropic engagement strategy. To continue the learning, stakeholders proposed a roundtable discussion for government philanthropy with the Memphis Grantmakers Forum.

    Box 1

    Reports and Media


    1. Memphis population estimates from the 2010–16 Census.

    2. US Census Bureau.

    3.“Percent People below Poverty by Race/Ethnicity: Memphis, TN-MS-AR Metro Area, 100%, 1980–2015,” National Equity Atlas, accessed May 14, 2018,

    4. Charles, Brian. 2018. “Cities May Be Facing a New Housing Crisis.” Governing Magazine

    5. HUD (US Department of Housing and Urban Development), “White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Accomplishments in Memphis, TN” (Washington, DC: HUD, 2014).



    Abt Associates. 2014. Evaluation of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Teams Pilot, Final Report. Bethesda, MD: Abt Associates.

    Barlow, Steve, Tommy Pacello, and Josh Whitehead. 2016. “Regulatory Created Blight in a Legacy City: What Is It and What Can We Do about It?University of Memphis Law Review 46 (4): 857–901.

    Delavega, Elena. 2016. “Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet, 2016 Update.” University of Memphis, Department of Social Work.

    Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
    Policy Centers Research to Action Lab
    States Tennessee
    Cities Memphis, TN-MS-AR