Last week, as the city's movers and shakers gathered at the Peabody for the Center City Commission's annual luncheon, their possible successors gathered at the Memphis Zoo.
As part of its Summer Experience program, the Leadership Academy hosted leadership training at the zoo with Shelby County mayor A C Wharton. The program, an attempt to stave off so-called brain drain, connects summer interns to community and business leaders and exposes them to the city's amenities.
"I moved here by choice and I stayed here by choice," Wharton says, as he relates the story of how he was planning to move from Memphis right before he found himself in the inaugural class of Leadership Memphis. "All cities have their challenges. ... My motto is: Don't move, improve."
This year's Summer Experience program involves more than 200 participants from 70 cities. Many of them are Memphis-born and -bred.
In addition to the zoo, Summer Experience events have been held at Shelby Farms, in the South Main arts district, and on a downtown rooftop. An end of the summer social is planned for August 4th at the National Ornamental Metal Museum.
"I'm from Memphis, but I haven't been to a lot of these places before," says Brittney Murray, an intern with AutoZone. "It's helping me learn about Memphis."
Murray attended last week's event with two of her fellow interns at AutoZone, Sharda Fields and Maria Marion. Though they all hail from Memphis, the three young women met at work this summer.
They say the Leadership Academy is good for networking — "A lot of times, the leaders will stay afterward and give you advice," Fields says — but none of them are sure they'll live in Memphis after college graduation.
"I want a change of scenery, but this program lets us know that Memphis needs us," Murray says.
Marion goes to school in Atlanta and plans to become a lawyer. She hopes that by the time she finishes law school, Memphis will have greater possibilities, because she wants to stay and help build the city.
"I don't think Memphis has progressed as much as other cities," she says. "Minorities in Atlanta are doing a lot more — and that's what is pushing me to stay in Atlanta. All the top historically black colleges are in Atlanta, and they're developing young leaders."
When asked about LeMoyne-Owen, she scoffed.
"My mom teaches at the University of Memphis, and it's a great school," she says, "but there's not a lot of places in Memphis to develop leadership skills. That's one thing about this program that I like — it's doing that."
For many of Memphis' own, returning home will come down to job opportunities.
Jay Somerville is a Memphis native. His 25-year-old sister graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta and now lives there. He goes to Morehouse College but says he would like to live in Memphis after he graduates, if possible.
"If the opportunity is here," he says. "I'll take it. I don't want to leave the city."
One program participant, Jared Wall, started the summer as an intern at Duncan Williams but has since been hired full-time. Wall is from a small town in Idaho and says Summer Experience changed how he viewed Memphis.
"When I moved here, I was told the politics in Memphis are pretty shady," he says. "My perspective has definitely changed, just to see there are other people besides politicians who are actively working toward creating a better Memphis."
One thing is for sure: Despite its flaws, Memphis can create some very deep roots.
Mahmoud Usmani is spending his summer working at the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Economic Development. A finance major at the University of Memphis, he says he probably won't live in Memphis, at least not initially. Right now he's looking toward New York.
"We have one of two finance companies here, but once you're here, you're pretty much stuck," he says. "In New York or Chicago or Atlanta, there are lots of companies, so you can move around. You're not going to be stuck in the same cubicle your whole life."
But once his career is over, he plans on returning to Memphis to give back to the community, maybe even running for political office.
"I love this city. People here are not like they are in New York," he says. "No one holds a door for you in New York."