Here are three things Boston needs to do now to land Amazon
That was easy.
Frankly, I would have been stunned if Boston had not made it to the next round of bidding for Amazon’s second headquarters. The real work begins now. We’ve got 19 competitors, metro areas from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to beat.
From the get-go, we’ve enjoyed front-runner status, but here are the three things that need to happen if we want to close the deal:
Governor Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone need to all get along.
Ask General Electric Co. honchos why they fell in love with Boston, and high on the list was the bromance between Baker and Walsh. The company liked how politicians from different parties could work together. The Baker and Walsh administrations quickly got in sync during the whirlwind seven-month courtship of GE. After four decades in Connecticut, the conglomerate uprooted its headquarters for Boston in 2016.
It has been a different story with Amazon, largely because the process has been a free-for-all. Baker didn’t pick favorites but rather submitted a Massachusetts bid that featured 26 potential sites. I’m pretty sure Walsh would have preferred Baker backing just Boston.
But none of that matters now. Amazon is interested in taking a closer look at the bids from Boston and Somerville, which offer two different visions of what a headquarters would look like here.
Boston’s proposal focuses on Suffolk Downs, the soon-to-be-shuttered horse racetrack that straddles East Boston and Revere, offering the company a 160-acre blank slate to work with. Suffolk Downs hardly seems like a tech center, but it’s the only place in Boston that fits key criteria in the Amazon request for proposals, including the desire for 100 acres, access to public transit, and proximity to an airport.
Meanwhile, Somerville pitched a regional approach, using the T to connect various sites over a roughly 2-mile stretch in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. One concept, for example, is dubbed “Amazon on the Orange Line” and links potential developments from North Station in Boston to Assembly Row in Somerville.
It’s a good sign that Walsh and Curtatone have been talking about Amazon, and checked in with each other before they submitted bids in October. That kind of dialogue needs to continue.
“This is how you win. You act like a region,” Curtatone tells me. “This is an opportunity to break out of our provincial and parochial mold.”
Developers need to team up.
They’re a notoriously competitive and swashbuckling bunch, but now is the time to put their egos aside. Amazon is looking for 8 million square feet to accommodate 50,000 employees, and, with the exception of Suffolk Downs, Amazon would be hard-pressed to find a single owner who could meet the company’s needs.
Somerville’s bid will hinge on at least five developers working together: Delaware North and Boston Properties (Hub on Causeway at North Station); Federal Realty and Cresset Group (Assembly Square in Somerville); and DivcoWest (NorthPoint in Cambridge).
Beyond Suffolk Downs, Boston’s bid mentions sites in several other neighborhoods, including the Seaport District, the South End, and Allston/Brighton, but it’s less clear how these areas could be knitted into an Amazon campus. It will require some new alliances to figure it out.
If, for example, Amazon decides to settle on the Seaport District — where it is already on the hunt for up to 1 million square feet separate from a second headquarters — developers will need to join forces. And some of them have already figured that out.
Take a look at how Millennium Partners, Jamestown, and Skanska USA — which control several million square feet of space by the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Industrial Park — are already collaborating on how to ease the South Boston Waterfront’s traffic woes. They’re the group behind the aerial gondola proposal, which sounds crazy until you learn that Millennium will contribute up to $100 million to build it. Look to these partners to put forth a formidable and fresh pitch for Amazon.
Another important player in the Seaport District will be the Massachusetts Port Authority, which owns 20 acres across four parcels. Massport chief Tom Glynn has been a team player in the past — including during the GE search — and I’d lean on the agency to help put pieces of the puzzle together.
Get creative on incentives.
This is where Massachusetts will likely get the lowest scores. We don’t write blank checks. Amazon has made clear from the get-go it wants to be wooed with tax breaks and other giveaways. That explains this over-the-top public process to find a second corporate home that will set up an intense bidding war. Massachusetts will be competing against multibillion-dollar incentive packages, and we’ll need to find a way to stay in the game without giving away the store. The city of Newark alone is offering $2 billion in tax breaks to Amazon, while Chris Christie, in one of his last acts as governor of New Jersey, pushed through a $5 billion package. That’s $7 billion, and yes, Newark made the cut.
Maryland joined the giveaway fray shortly after its Montgomery County was named a finalist; Governor Larry Hogan, according to various reports, plans to submit legislation to craft a $5 billion incentive package for Amazon.
Governor Baker should be taking notes. We’ll need a financial package that begins with a “b” — and you get there politically by proposing massive infrastructure and transportation improvements that benefit not just future Amazonians but everyone. The administration is already planning to do some of these ambitious projects — like expanding South Station. But now there’s a deadline to get it done. If Amazon goes to Suffolk Downs, the state should probably connect the Red and Blue Lines so there’s easy access to tech talent in Cambridge from East Boston.
The tech giant will also want a trained workforce, and that’s what makes Boston so attractive. We’ve got Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, and scores of other colleges and universities churning out talent. But the future will require more technical skills, and we’ll need to do more to prepare K-12 students as well as to retrain our existing labor pool. Baker should consider a game-changing infusion of money for education from preschools to the University of Massachusetts system.
Baker, in speaking to reporters on Thursday, wouldn’t commit to submitting legislation to create an incentive package for Amazon.
“Too early to tell with respect to that,” he said. “Gonna depend a lot on what we hear from them.”
When it comes to Amazon, it’ll have to be something bold. So be bold.