Amazon needs a better pitch than ‘you’d be lucky to have us’
If you were Boston Mayor Marty Walsh — or the mayor of any decent-size city — you’d be crazy not to make a play for Amazon’s second headquarters.
The problem is: The e-commerce giant knows that, and it’s treating its many would-be suitors accordingly. Amazon has given cities a month to propose a package of generous financial incentives — so generous that they may stretch the limits of state and local laws.
Then it’ll choose. The sweepstakes for Amazon’s “HQ2” looks like a tech-world replay of 2010’s “The Decision,” when LeBron James kept basketball fans waiting to find out whether he’d bless Cleveland or Miami with his presence. If anything, the imbalance of power between Amazon and local governments is even more lopsided, but that’s no excuse for the company to behave high-handedly.
In general, tech firms need a better message for local communities than “you’d be lucky to have us.”
Over the years, Jeff Bezos’s empire, which now occupies as much office space in Seattle as the 40 next-largest employers combined, has sprawled too much to be ruled from a single spot. Yet the value of any financial concessions Amazon might extract from its new capital to the east look like a rounding error against Bezos’s personal fortune — and especially against Amazon’s projected revenues over the next couple of decades. When the Romans established a parallel seat of government in Constantinople, it was for strategic reasons, not because Athens and Smyrna had failed to cough up enough relocation grants.
Personally, I’d be delighted if Amazon made Boston its second home — not just for the 50,000 new jobs, but also for the economic diversification it would provide, and especially for the jolt of West Coast energy into a city that all too often sees itself as a historical relic. Yet by vastly expanding its presence here, Amazon would also get a lot in return — a vibrant university cluster, a deep talent pool, a rich ecosystem of nuts-and-bolts tech companies, and an international airport close to downtown. If Amazon picks Boston, it’ll be primarily because the two make a good long-term match.
Unfortunately, tech firms bent on global conquest are notoriously oblivious to local sensibilities. Savita Vaidhyanathan, the mayor of Cupertino, Calif. — Apple’s home community — recently told The New York Times she’d never met CEO Tim Cook. For most of Amazon’s history, the company was barely a factor in Seattle-
area charitable giving. Messianic tech founders often treat their for-profit companies as their gift to the world.
In the last few years, though, Bezos and his company have assumed a higher profile in Seattle’s civic affairs, not least in the areas of mass transit and computer-science education. That should help guide officials in Boston and Massachusetts in their effort to structure a bid.
While Boston shouldn’t just lie back and wait for Amazon to come knocking, the
incentives that local officials offer should lean heavily on permitting relief, transportation improvements, fiber-optic network initiatives, and beefed-up technical-
education programs. Radically better transit service to a new office campus at NorthPoint, Beacon Yards, or Suffolk Downs would be a boon to Amazon, for sure — but also for lots of other people.
The terms of Boston’s bid should communicate the following: We’ll never be the cheapest place to do business, but we’ll spare you the red tape, help educate the labor force you need, find spots where you can get your buildings up without a fuss, and make it easy for your employees to get to work. (That, not coincidentally, is also what Boston should be promising — and delivering — to every other prospective employer.)
Meanwhile, as Bezos ponders his own version of “The Decision,” the answer shouldn’t just depend on how much a city is kicking in to help Amazon. It should also hinge on whether the incentives the city is offering work for its own long-term benefit.