Issue of the week: Vying for Amazon’s new HQ
Tucson sent a 21-foot cactus to Jeff Bezos. Birmingham, Ala., installed giant delivery boxes around town. And Stonecrest, Ga., offered to rename itself Amazon. When you’re gunning to be the home of Amazon’s second headquarters, you “need something to set yourself apart,” said Nathan Bomey in USA Today. After the e-commerce giant announced in September that it was hunting for the perfect “Amazon HQ2” location, promising to invest $5 billion and create 50,000 high-paying jobs, 238 cities and towns eagerly threw their hats into the ring, with the application period ending last week. Some launched “downright wacky” stunts, while others dangled more traditional sweeteners, like the $7 billion in tax breaks offered up by Newark, N.J. If there are early front-runners for this “civic beauty pageant,” Amazon isn’t saying, said Matt Day in SeattleTimes.com. But based on the company’s lengthy wish list—a population of at least 1 million, good mass transit, a well-educated labor force—analysts “have some guesses.” Moody’s Analytics crunched the numbers and named Austin, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Rochester, N.Y., as “best positioned” to win.
Cities in the running should “be careful what they wish for,” said Timothy Egan in The New York Times. “Well before Amazon disrupted books, music, television, furniture—everything—it disrupted Seattle.” Here in the home of its first HQ, Amazon has detonated a “prosperity bomb.” Sure, we got tens of thousands of high-paying jobs. But the median home price has doubled in the past five years, to $700,000. The traffic is maddening, and Amazon occupies a full fifth of our best office space. The company has quite simply altered our city in ways residents “never had any say over.” The victor will no doubt have to fork over billions in tax breaks, said Katy Steinmetz in Time.com. That’s likely to be a raw deal for locals, because when a company attracts new people to a region, public costs—“hiring more teachers, fielding more 911 calls, widening roadways”—often rise substantially. If Amazon gets a pass on contributing, residents will be rewarded with “a higher tax bill.”
I think it’s “obnoxious for a healthy company to insist on getting these enticements,” said Robert Reed in the Chicago Tribune, but “it’s now a fact of corporate life.” If one city doesn’t play ball, another one will. But in this case, the benefits “outweigh the publicly backed giveaways.” Chicago’s bid estimates that Amazon could generate $341 billion for the local economy over the next 17 years. Still, I’d like to appeal to Jeff Bezos’ better angels, said Virginia Postrel in Bloomberg.com. Does he want to be a “responsible corporate citizen” and use this opportunity to challenge civic leaders to create better cities for residents? Or does he want Amazon to “go looking for handouts”? As it weighs its many options, Amazon “should consider what its high-profile decision says about its values, priorities, and identity.” ■