Business

Shirley Leung

A lesson hard for Boston to buy: We’re good

Jeff Bezos’s request for proposals for sites of the new Amazon headquarters might as well have said “somewhere like Boston.”
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2016
Jeff Bezos’s request for proposals for sites of the new Amazon headquarters might as well have said “somewhere like Boston.”

It almost doesn’t matter if Amazon picks Boston for its next headquarters. We’ve already won.

Here’s how: In its eight-page request for proposals, the Seattle-based tech giant painted a portrait of where it wanted to be — a place with an educated workforce, a strong university culture, good public schools, an international airport, mass transit, and a high quality of life.

CEO Jeff Bezos might as well have said “somewhere like Boston.” The city’s 218-page proposal, submitted to Amazon by last Thursday’s deadline, made our strengths abundantly clear.

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This is not just the business columnist in me being boosterish. Pore over the analyses by pundits and experts alike, and Boston was on nearly everyone’s short list of where Amazon might go. A Globe colleague tallied the results: Boston showed up on 12 out of 16 such lists. Only Atlanta appeared more often, with 14 mentions.

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This is an important moment for our city and our region, and it’s been a long time in the making. Amazon’s open casting call for sites may have finally exorcised one of Greater Boston’s demons, its sense of being a tech also-ran, the home of the second phase of the computer revolution that was dethroned by Silicon Valley when personal computers ushered in the third phase. We famously couldn’t keep Mark Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook in a Harvard dorm in 2004 and then promptly moved to California to build his transformational company.

But now the world is starting to view us differently. That was hammered home when General Electric decided to move its headquarters to Boston last year for the same reason Amazon might come here: the chance to invent the future surrounded by bright minds at our constellation of universities, teaching hospitals, life sciences companies, and startups.

Maybe we just got lucky with GE. But with Boston seriously in the race for Amazon’s up to 50,000 jobs and $5 billion of investment, maybe we’re not lucky but actually good.

“The region is feeling very strong,” said Harvard economist Edward Glaeser. “Maybe in some sense Boston should stop with the inferiority complex.”

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How did we get here?

Let’s be honest, if it weren’t for the foundation provided by Harvard (established in 1636), MIT (1861), and our other top schools, we would not be a prime Amazon contender. The death of the minicomputer industry in the mid-1990s muted talk of the Massachusetts Miracle, but the startup legacy of Ken Olsen, Edson de Castro, and An Wang was carried forward by a younger generation of entrepreneurs.

Our world-class hospitals and universities gave birth to biotech, and the emergence of multibillion-dollar companies like Genzyme, Biogen, and Vertex put us at the top of the industry.

It has been hard to let go of our economic past when there are so many fresh scars. Many of our marquee homegrown companies have been swallowed up by out-of-state competitors. Procter & Gamble bought Gillette, Adidas acquired Reebok, Macy’s purchased Filene’s, Dell took over EMC.

Before that, we lived in Taxachusetts, a moniker that was well-deserved in the 1970s and 1980s, and perhaps cemented in the national lexicon after Governor Michael Dukakis unsuccessfully ran for president in 1988.

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Steve Tocco, who was Governor Bill Weld’s economic secretary in the early 1990s, remembers how Massachusetts was a tough sell not only for out-of-state companies looking to move here but also for existing businesses considering an expansion.

‘The region is feeling very strong. Maybe in some sense Boston should stop with the inferiority complex.’

Edward Glaeser, Harvard economist  

“We were coming off the Taxachusetts label. It was brutal,” Tocco recalled. “As I was chasing projects, you had to spend the first 20 minutes talking about taxes.”

A series of tax cuts engineered by Weld and his successor, Paul Cellucci, and two ballot initiatives — one capping property taxes and another reducing the state income tax — allowed us to finally leave Taxachusetts behind. In terms of local and state taxes, Massachusetts now is in the middle of the pack.

These days, state economic secretary Jay Ash likes to play a game with himself when he talks to companies thinking about coming to Massachusetts. He always counts how long it will take until someone asks about Cambridge’s Kendall Square or Boston’s Seaport District.

Ash tells me it’s almost always less than minute.

“Our challenge is not to attract them but to extend the footprint of Kendall Square and the Seaport District,” he said. “There’s a huge gravitational pull to Boston that people even in Greater Boston don’t realize.”

Our traffic and beleaguered subway and rail systems draw rebukes, fair enough. But let’s not forget that the Big Dig reinvigorated the North End and made the Seaport possible, that Logan Airport has been upgraded to accommodate more all-important international flights, and that the 1980s extensions of the Red Line made commuting from the South Shore and northwest suburbs easier, and more tightly connected Somerville to Boston.

Now we’re far from a perfect place to live and work. We have too much inequality of opportunity, the cost of housing stretches too many budgets, kids in urban school districts are being left behind, and our public transit needs more money.

But our knowledge-based economy is the envy of many, and other regions will want to catch up by investing heavily in education and other infrastructure. We already see New York making a run at becoming a leader in tech and biotech. We can’t be complacent.

But just for a moment, pause to appreciate how far we’ve come. Amazon or no Amazon, the future is bright.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.