We’re nearing the emotional finale of “Who Wants to Marry a Multibillion-Dollar Corporate Behemoth?” One unlucky city will win the chance to live not-so happily ever after with Amazon’s second headquarters and 50,000 new neighbors.
A year after Amazon announced it would host a competition to decide where to build its “HQ2,” word on the street is that the end is near for this absurd reality show of municipal policymaking in our reality-show era.
Earlier this year, more than 250 candidates were narrowed down to 20. Since then, local media in each of the finalist cities have been scouring for any possible window into the thinking of CEO Jeff Bezos.
Mr. Bezos was in Miami wearing purple pants! Surely it’s a sign. An obscure page on the Amazon website has a picture of a dog with the same name as the Washington, D.C., mayor! It must mean something.
One thing has been clear from the start, however. Whoever wins this competition will lose.
Offering massive giveaways to reel in corporate investment is nothing new for municipal and state governments. But never before have so many different governments competed against one another for a single prize. And the bidding was fierce.
Atlanta officials proposed spending as much as $1.75 billion in public funds to support a private redevelopment effort that would create a new mini-city in an underused portion of downtown.
Newark and the state of New Jersey offered a combined $7 billion in incentives. Newark officials also said they would exempt Amazon from payroll taxes and broke ground recently on an $11 million park that leaves adjacent land empty for future Amazon offices.
Montgomery County, Maryland, which is just outside of Washington, D.C., takes the cake. County officials offered an eye-popping $6.5 billion in subsidies plus $2 billion in infrastructure spending, making theirs the largest incentives package by far.
And all this for a company that turned a cool $178 billion profit last year and is run by the wealthiest man on earth.
Public officials justify an outpouring of cash on the grounds that Amazon promises to create 50,000 new high-paying jobs and invest $5 billion in a gleaming new facility. But rather than bringing a wave of prosperity, that jolt of new employment could prove ruinous.
Even in the most populous top 20 contender — New York — Amazon could suddenly become the city’s largest private employer. In Atlanta, one of every 100 metro area residents would be employed by Amazon. In Nashville, one in 30.
It’s incredibly risky to allow one company to employ such a significant chunk of a city’s population.
And a smaller city like Nashville or Columbus, Ohio, would undoubtedly have to import several thousand new residents in order to fully staff the new headquarters. That means new housing, roads, public transportation, fire and police service, schools and other public expenditures.
The shock of 50,000 new high-salaried workers who need homes would be enough to upend even the largest real estate markets in the United States. It could be truly devastating for mid-size cities that are already struggling with spiraling housing costs.
Charleston pointedly did not submit an application for Amazon’s HQ2. We’re already working hard to keep up with the demands of population growth and the challenges — affordable housing, effective transportation, quality of life — that booming cities face.
We know better than to invite 50,000 new neighbors all at once. They’ll get here eventually anyway.
But that doesn’t mean that Charleston shouldn’t do more to foster the kinds of amenities that would make the region attractive to young, dynamic tech jobs. Things like walkable neighborhoods, a varied housing mix, public transportation, bike facilities and thriving local businesses can benefit the city far more than a single, massive investment.
And we can tackle those challenges without spending billions of dollars. All it takes is flexibility, vision and openness to experimenting with new projects and doubling down on what works.
Take for example the HOP shuttle and accompanying park and ride system in the Upper Peninsula. It only took a few months to set up, is expected to cost less than $1 million to operate for the first year and has been beating ridership projections.
One relatively small investment has taught us a lot about how people prefer to get around downtown Charleston. Those lessons can readily be expanded to the rest of the region.
It’s possible that Amazon’s HQ2 will be as revolutionary as so many public officials seem to think. But I wouldn’t count on it. Good city development doesn’t need a gigantic corporate savior. It needs good people making small changes in a smart direction.
Ed Buckley is an editorial writer with The Post and Courier.