In the race to be home to Amazon’s second North American headquarters, Boston is one of the cities to beat.
The prize: up to 50,000 high-paying jobs and bragging rights for luring one of the world’s biggest and most powerful companies.
But after our big General Electric win, I am worried we might get complacent.
Getting GE to relocate its headquarters to Boston from Connecticut was no small feat. But city and state officials shouldn’t just dust off that winning proposal and expect Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to call. This will not be your typical corporate buildout that gets sealed with a trophy tower and sizeable tax breaks.
Instead, this should be our strategy: Woo a visionary with a vision.
Everything you read about Bezos is that he thinks big. When he launched Amazon, the site sold books online, but that was just the beginning. Bezos wanted to sell everything.
Two decades later, he’s come close, and along the way has changed not only how we read (Kindle) but how we shop (Prime) and live (Alexa). Eventually, he wants to figure out how to get millions of us to travel to space. The first customer could hop a rocket next year.
What’s next? Anything in Bezos’s world.
Here’s where Massachusetts comes in. Offer a blueprint for what a corporate headquarters should be and how we can build a better pipeline of workers to staff it. Whatever is next for the corporate genius, we’re the place for Amazon to grow over the next half century.
Bezos’s open casting call — made last week and carrying an Oct. 19 deadline for bids — is unusual, but the company’s eight-page request for proposal spells out specifics giving clues on what might matter. There are the usual requirements such as public transit, an international airport, and a business-friendly environment.
But then there are details that invite us to be bold. For example, Amazon will consider sites of about 100 acres and wants a list of the region’s “universities and community colleges with relevant degrees and the number of students graduating with those degrees over the last three years. Additionally, include information on your local/regional K-12 education programs related to computer science.”
As state officials and local mayors prepare proposals, they shouldn’t just lay out what they think a headquarters looks like today but what it should like tomorrow. Talk to corporate strategists, urban planners, architects, futurists. (Yes, that’s a real job title.)
That’s why I get excited by a site like Suffolk Downs, which straddles East Boston and Revere. The 161-acre waterfront property is a blank slate between two Blue Line stops, and sits so close to Logan you can see planes taking off and landing. With its casino dreams dashed, the horse racetrack was sold earlier this year to a development team led by former City of Boston planning honcho Tom O’Brien.
O’Brien has said he envisions a mega-project like Assembly Square with housing, shops, restaurants, and offices, arranged on pedestrian-friendly city blocks. You can see how easily that can become a development anchored by a corporate headquarters with work-play-live amenities. (The current Amazon headquarters in Seattle boasts 24 restaurants and cafes.)
Now the traffic by Suffolk Downs is a nightmare, but if Amazon were waiting in the wings, the state would finally fix Route 1A. How about that flyover?
That shouldn’t be all. Other infrastructure upgrades to consider: a ferry to the Seaport District (where Amazon will open an office next spring with 900 employees) and a connector to finally link the Blue and Red lines so Amazon workers can easily reach their office in Kendall Square. That’s not pie-in-the-sky; connecting those subway lines was in the works a decade ago until the state scrapped it.
A bona fide lure that exists now is our brain power.
Lucky for us that’s as close to being a natural resource in Boston as anywhere else in the world. We have Harvard, MIT, and scores of other institutions producing college graduates. (Coincidentally, Bloomberg News reported Tuesday that several Amazon executives are pushing Boston for its education firepower, plus access to Logan and a lower cost of living than some other contenders.) Tack on the teaching hospitals and biotech labs, and a startup culture that fills Kendall Square, and we are ground zero for innovation.
But our dirty little secret is that we can’t produce enough tech talent to power our current economy, let alone one that includes Amazon. In Massachusetts, there are 17 jobs for every one graduate with a degree in computer science or IT, according to the latest state data from 2014.
Laudably, the state has offered up myriad programs to address this shortcoming, from bolstering vocational tech schools and community colleges to reduced tuition to make college affordable for all. In one pilot, the city of Boston and the state have teamed up to offer free tuition to low-income Boston students.
The private sector has stepped up to place students from community colleges and urban schools in internships, including at local tech companies.
But so much more can be done, and we all know it. Having Amazon here can provide the catalyst for Beacon Hill to start scaling these programs not only at the college level but also K-12.
The tech community proposed an ill-fated computer science requirement a few years ago, and since then has been working with school districts to get more kids computer literate. Perhaps it’s time for state leaders to commit to an ambitious plan to make computer science curriculum a priority.
David Collis, a Harvard Business School professor who teaches strategy, said decisions about headquarters ultimately come down to tax incentives and the personal preferences of the CEO.
We already know there’s little political appetite locally to offer Amazon a blank check. Which leads us back to where we started, or as Collis puts it: “Can we find an angle that appeals to Bezos?”
If Bezos has a favorite word, it would be bold. Let’s not be afraid of it.