Boston is primed for Amazon
Amazon is offering one city a winning lottery ticket. The home selected for its second headquarters campus can expect a concentration of tens of thousands of men and women with talent, education, and the resources to flourish.
No surprise, then, that dozens of communities around the country are tripping over themselves to vie for the prize. Stonecrest, Ga., pledges to de-annex 345 acres and name the new burg “Amazon.” Tucson, Ariz., sent the online retailer a 21-foot tall cactus. Vancouver is touting Canada’s liberal visa policy in its pitch to win the sweepstakes.
But the Commonwealth doesn’t need gimmicks. Nor do we need to brag. Harvard. MIT. Mass. General Hospital. General Electric. Fidelity. We are home to institutions that need no introduction, with reputations that need no recitation.
So let’s be clear: Amazon is a natural fit for Boston, and the city should extend a welcome with arms wide open. Indeed, 66 percent of Bostonians already support the bid to bring the company here. Proposals from cities are due by Oct. 19 and a final decision is expected next year. City and state officials and the business community should try their utmost to bring Amazon to Boston, sealing the deal, as they did with GE.
This isn’t to say that the Legislature need give away the store with extravagant tax breaks or incentives. Instead, it’s a chance to reinvent the relationship between a city and a corporation.
The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Boston has been a top talent exporter for far too long. Some of the best students on earth come here and study here. But too many leave once they get their degrees. The cost of housing is high. The winters are harsh. The job market isn’t as sexy and glamorous as the Bay Area, where many newly minted STEM grads flock to seek their fortunes.
A report from the Los Angeles-based CBRE found that Boston has the biggest tech brain drain, compared with 40 similar cities nationwide. Between 2011 and 2015, more than 31,000 technology degrees were awarded in the Boston area. But only 11,790 tech jobs were added to the local economy, meaning nearly two-thirds — more than 19,600 highly educated workers — had to take their skills elsewhere.
If Amazon could hire even a small portion of those students right out of school, it would be a boon for the city and the company, which could depend on a steady stream of the best and brightest minds, who wouldn’t need relocation allowances.
As with any big idea, the conversation about Amazon moving to Boston has its share of naysayers.
“It’s a stunning distraction,” former gubernatorial candidate Evan Falchuk told the Globe. “We have Boston Public Schools underperforming. There are challenges with our mass transit heading into winter. There are all kinds of issues that need to be dealt with, but it’s all being pushed aside because Amazon wants something.”
Nonsense. Falchuk and others made similar arguments during the failed bid to bring the Olympic games to the city in 2014. But unlike the Olympics, Amazon isn’t going to pack up and leave after two weeks. What it will do is add 40,000 to 50,000 high-paying jobs to the tax rolls that fund our public schools, our mass transit system, and our social safety net.
Of course, the addition of tens of thousands of highly skilled workers raises obvious questions: Where will they live? How will they commute? What will the city have to give up in terms of tax breaks or other inducements? Important though those questions are, they shouldn’t be asked and answered in isolation. We should also ask: Where will all these people shop? How will they help coach youth sports? What vitality will they bring to our civic life?
The influx of talent, prosperity, and intellect that Amazon could bring to the city will be valuable assets, needed not just to tackle the problems that now preoccupy us, but to meet the challenges that will face the next generation of Bostonians — artificial intelligence and robotics, genetics and big data, sea level rise and climate change. Those are the issues that will dominate our lives in the coming decades. They will bring with them technological and ethical challenges, both of which this city is extraordinarily well equipped to meet.
Amazon’s wish list for what it wants in a new location is precisely what Boston has to offer — a major airport, mass transit, a hyper-educated workforce, and a high quality of life. Indeed, Amazon’s wish list is a good road map for any city to make itself more attractive to the digital workforce of the 21st century. Both Amazon and Boston have strong futures. Together, they can aspire to build something even more enduring.