The deadline has passed, but the competition has just begun. Since early September, US cities have been promoting their attributes, beautifying their reputations and putting on elaborate displays of civic seduction – all in an effort to convince Jeff Bezos and his team at Amazon to select them as the site of the e-tailing behemoth’s second headquarters.
Tucson sent a 21ft cactus. New York lit up the Empire State Building in the brand’s shade of orange. The mayor of the Atlanta suburb of Stonecrest said his city would use 345 acres of industrial land to create an entirely new city called Amazon.
By the time the 19 October deadline came around, Amazon said it had received 238 proposals from 54 states, provinces, districts and territories in the US, Canada and Mexico.
The benefits of securing the so-called “HQ2” seem self-evident: Amazon anticipates it will bring with it 50,000 jobs, not to mention $5bn (£3.8bn) of investment. It is not expected to make a decision until next year, but while the formal application process is over, the campaigning continues. Philadelphia just launched a month-long advertising blitz on buses and trolleys in Seattle, Amazon’s heartland, to continue courting the corporate giant.
The City of Brotherly Love, widely considered a leading contender, certainly appears to meet the company’s criteria: a metropolitan area with more than a million people; a business-friendly environment with proximity to a major airport; and a strong university system to provide a wide pool of talent.
Beyond that, the rationale behind Amazon’s decision-making is unknown.
That has not stopped many from guessing. Moody’s Analytics chose Austin, Texas; an Irish betting site, Atlanta; the New York Times picked Denver, and later Pittsburgh; a study of corporate job postings by Baird Equity Research put Washington, DC, at No 1. That fit with the technology coding company Thinkful, which also nominated the capital based on its qualified workforce, transit system and a “burgeoning reputation as a hip millennial town”.
Whichever city is eventually chosen, the guidelines for proposals made clear it will be on the strength of the buildings on offer, considered “of paramount importance”. “Amazon HQ2 is a transformational project, and we must ensure we have the best real estate options available,” said the company.
It hints at the one-sided nature of the transaction. So far, the contest and the conversation surrounding it seems to have focused on what cities can offer – not what they’ll get in return, or may give up in exchange.
Seattle has experienced the trade off for itself. In contrast to Apple, Google or Microsoft-style “campuses”, Amazon’s headquarters are spread out over dozens of buildings it leases and owns in the city centre, with its 40,000-odd employees encouraged to venture beyond its grounds on lunch breaks and for meetings.
There, wrote one commentator recently in the Boston Globe, “Amazon dominates the business landscape like no other company currently consumes a major American city” – and it has been both a blessing and a burden.
While acknowledging the prosperity that Amazon has brought Seattle, many also lament the distorting effects of rising property prices, associated surge in homelessness, and increased congestion. Politico recently blamed Amazon for creating a “two-tier town with a thin layer of wealthy young techies atop a base of anxious wage workers”.
The company, now the largest retailer in the world, is also not known for its largesse, either in terms of donation or civic engagement. Jeff Bezos, its 53-year-old CEO, newly crowned as the world’s wealthiest man with more than $90bn to his name, “has yet to make a major philanthropic mark”, as Bloomberg put it.
In Philadelphia, the sentiment of the city’s residents suggests such concerns can come later.
“Amazon’s a great company, and it would be a great thing for this city,” said Osvaldo Fontecchio, a lawyer. “What would be the downside to bringing in a multinational corporation with that many job opportunities? I can’t understand Seattle’s attitude to Amazon – you’d think they’d be thrilled.”
In the rush to win the race, it seems bigger questions about the principle underpinning it seem to have gone unanswered. Is the company looking to take a transformational role in the city it selects, or simply slot into an existing, functional business environment?
“I think Amazon is looking for a place where they can make a statement,” said Aisha Glover, CEO of the Community Economic Development Corporation in Newark, New Jersey.
The city was a late entry into the selection process but jumped in with both feet, with state officials – including the state’s controversial outgoing governor, Chris Christie – promising a staggering $7bn in tax incentives. ($2bn more than Amazon has promised in investment.)
“No other state has endorsed one city and made a monetary commitment. New Jersey said, ‘We’re going to lead with our best foot forward and clear the deck for you,’” said Glover.
Just 20 minutes from Manhattan, Newark was hit hard by the loss of leather and light manufacturing in the latter half of the 20th century, its population dwindling from half a million to around 200,000.
Glover believes Amazon is open to being persuaded by a “moral imperative” – a responsibility to locate in a region hit by the loss of manufacturing but not obliterated by it. “They want the talent, the infrastructure, the tech, but they also want room for growth, and they want to be known for making an impact,” she said. “You can do that in a legacy city like Newark.”
Unlike other nearby locations, including Navy Yard and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, New York, Newark has had scant experience with gentrification.
“Economic disparity is stark here,” said Glover. “You have a strong corporate community of professionals doing very well, but you also have almost a third of the population living in poverty. It’s not a stat you want to brag about, but it means they can have the infrastructure and affordability they need, but also do good at the same time.
“We also see that a big company brings more employment in, and that in turn supports small businesses, so it’s in keeping with our philosophy.”
Newark mayor Ras Baraka, son of the radical poet Amiri Baraka and a singer on Lauryn Hill’s 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, has indicated that the arrival of HQ2 would not clash with his vision of community-inclusive urban regeneration.
But on the street, some residents expressed skepticism not only about Newark’s chances but about the potential payoff. “Panasonic said they’d bring jobs when they came, but I ain’t seen none,” said one city worker. “They just want to pay here to save on tax. We don’t exactly have the best kind of reputation.”
Many expressed concern that Amazon’s presence in Newark would not alleviate preoccupying concerns: traffic congestion and property taxes.
“Creating more employment is a great thing, but maybe they should have it in a more rural environment so they don’t bring the traffic into the city,” said Cherryl Singh, an office worker. “I’m hoping if Amazon does come, property taxes could be reduced. The taxes here are crazy.”
Newark resident Chris Harrington, a 36-year-old chef, also had misgivings. “It would be good to have 50,000 jobs, but I can’t imagine what would happen with parking and congestion on the freeway. And with that number of employees, you’re going to be dealing with rapid gentrification.”
It seems likely the full impacts of HQ2, good or bad, will only be known in time, and by one winning city. At least two cities of the 238 application cities have already made the call that it wouldn’t be worth it.
Little Rock, Arkansas, publicised its intention not to seek HQ2 by “breaking up” with the company in a full-page ad in the Washington Post on deadline day: “Amazon, you’ve got so much going for you, and you’ll find what you’re looking for. But it’s just not us.”
The mayor, Mark Stodola, had earlier said Little Rock would pursue the project, even though it did not meet some of Amazon’s stated criteria. In the end, he was put off by the cut-throat competition, and told reporters: “We saw cities hocking their arms and all their economic development money in this.”
The other was San Antonio, Texas. As the city told Jeff Bezos in an open letter: “Blindly giving away the farm isn’t our style.”
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