Maybe we didn’t really lose the HQ2 sweepstakes after all.
Sure, we’re not getting the tens of thousands of jobs that Amazon promised to one city — actually, make that two. Instead, the retail giant’s East Coast base of operations will be divided between Arlington, Va., and New York’s Long Island City neighborhood. Nashville also won a consolation prize: a logistics office that could employ up to 5,000 people.
Boston made it to the top 20 metro areas under consideration. But the city and the state certainly wouldn’t match the generous public incentives that Amazon will get in New York and Virginia. More importantly, Amazon wanted a big talent pool, and the populations of the D.C. and NYC metro areas are simply bigger than ours. And there were plenty of valid questions about whether our housing market and transit system could accommodate the big influx.
Here’s what we did get: an unprecedented exercise in civic planning. Cynics might call our participation a waste of time, a missed opportunity. But it doesn’t have to be.
More than two dozen Massachusetts cities and towns made their own pitches. Now, state officials and real estate brokers have a new, ready-made list of properties that community leaders are eager to see developed.
To be sure, some seemed far-fetched: There was no way Amazon would be hiring battalions of engineers in the small Berkshires town of Lee, for example.
But other pitches could have lasting ripple effects. The Worcester bid helped galvanize business leaders there, priming the pump for the city to land the Pawtucket Red Sox. And New Bedford officials took a hard look at municipal golf-course land that could be better suited for an office park.
The HQ2 contest prompted many municipal officials to think regionally for a change. There were two multi-community bids out of the Merrimack Valley, for example, and one in MetroWest. Boston’s effort focused on the Suffolk Downs racetrack, which straddles the border with Revere. Officials in both cities had to work together.
The Suffolk Downs proposal coincided with developer Tom O’Brien’s efforts to redevelop the sprawling, 161-acre property. The HQ2 talks helped focus, if not accelerate, some of the decision-making that leaders in both cities needed to make. O’Brien says he will now move ahead with a 1.4-million-square-foot, mixed-use first phase near the Beachmont T station in Revere. He hopes to start construction in 2019 after getting the required permits in both cities. Plus, he has two office buildings that could go up on the Boston side, originally permitted with Amazon in mind, in case another big employer comes knocking.
Of course, Amazon already has a big presence here. The Seattle company employs about 4,000 people in the region: from a robotics center in North Reading to a massive warehouse in Fall River. Roughly half are in Cambridge and Boston, with more on the way. Another 2,000 are expected in the Seaport by 2021.
Yes, the D.C. and New York victories in the HQ2 race serve as an important reminder that Boston can’t rest on its history, its universities, or its reputation when it comes to chasing tech talent.
But the next big opportunity is on the horizon. Now, thanks to this competition, we’re better equipped to chase it.