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Hip To Be Square

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Real estate entrepreneur Leland Speed was once told that "certain sermons are best delivered by a visiting minister." And so it was that the Jackson, Mississippi, native found himself in a Hernando church last week, talking to a visiting "congregation" about selling good design.

"You've got to have a town that's attractive or no one is going to live there," he said. "Quality sells today. Commodity ... Having linear streets and you think you're creative because you threw in a cul-de-sac, that's history. That's 30-years-ago kind of stuff."

Until recently, Speed was head of the Mississippi Development Authority, a statewide agency charged with economic development. He is also a consultant with the city of Jackson. And, as members of the Memphis regional branch of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) sat on pews, Speed talked about the economic benefits of citywide curb appeal.

When Speed came back to Mississippi after more than two decades away, "frankly, I wasn't real happy with the stuff I saw," he said. "I remembered small, vibrant communities. I came back to find dead communities."

People kept asking him when he was going to bring their town a factory. But, to Speed, that's the old way of thinking.

To prove his point, Speed told a tale of two towns. One "won the lottery": An auto assembly plant relocated there. The other didn't get anything of the sort but eventually had to declare a moratorium on building permits because it was growing too fast. The town with the factory didn't.

"What are those two towns? Canton and Oxford," Speed said. "You can say it was the university, but eight out of 10 university towns do not grow inordinately."

So what was it? Speed traced Oxford's growth back to the opening of Square Books.

"What it is is the square. The university is an amenity to the square, not the other way around. People go to the square every day," he said. "The square is magic."

And Canton? "Canton is not viewed as an attractive place to live so people don't live there," he said.

In a world of PILOTs, tax incentives, NAFTA, and the creative class, urban leaders are beginning to understand that atmosphere can be just as important as industry for an area's fiscal health.

Speed advised communities to deal with their "cruel realities," "quit worrying about what you don't have," and "focus on what you have." A city doesn't have the best school system? It might matter less than you think. Citing the rising number of single people in the United States, Speed said, "Where do single people want to live? Do they want an acre lot? ... No."

In fact, Speed thinks the defining factor is whether a city is cool or not. "The trends are in our direction," he said. "We need to use our creativity and culture as an asset."

Unfortunately, he was talking about Mississippi, but I think this applies to Memphis, as well. Memphis has an authenticity that can be leveraged in a world of Wal-Marts and Costcos. But Memphis also needs to prove that it's a great place to live. Or a cool place to live, as the case may be.

Speed spoke of Pascagoula, a Mississippi town on the Gulf with roughly 11,000 shipyard employees.

"Ten percent of the employees live in Pascagoula," Speed said. "Twenty-five percent live in Mobile. Mississippi residents are paying taxes to bring jobs to Mobile. How long should taxpayers subsidize that situation?"

The converse is if Marion, Arkansas, had won the Toyota plant that eventually went to Tupelo, Mississippi, some of those workers surely would have lived in Memphis. But some of them also might have lived in DeSoto County.

Cities aren't just competing for companies anymore; they're competing for workers. For inhabitants. For those people who make a house — or a city — a home.

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