Amazon can provide almost everything consumers want, but now the question is: Who can provide almost everything Amazon wants?
Cities and regions are competing to make themselves the answer as the Seattle-based online retailer seeks a location for its second corporate home. The stakes are Amazon-huge – $5 billion in capital investments in connection with a second headquarters that could eventually employ 40,000 to 50,000 people, most of them in relatively high-paying jobs. Four North Carolina regions – the Charlotte region, the Hickory region, the Triad region and the Research Triangle region – joined dozens of others nationwide who submitted their pitches before last Thursday’s deadline.
Most of the bids are likely quixotic. Only a handful of cities and regions have what Amazon wants and needs for its business and its employees. It’s likely the company already has a short list of where it might build what’s been dubbed HQ2.
Still, a region can dream. Let’s consider the chances – and the effects – of the Research Triangle winning this contest.
First, there’s a chance. The Research Triangle became the Research Triangle because of the visionary and collaborative thinking of people in state government, business and academe. The force of their idea – create synergy between business and research universities around a central Research Triangle Park – led to a region rich in well-educated workers and full of businesses working on the edge of discovery. It’s the kind of research-driven business environment that suits a company that stays ahead of its competition by staying ahead of its time.
Second, the Research Triangle has the urban amenities and the potential airport capacity Amazon wants, but it is decentralized enough to give the company room to grow. It’s also affordable enough to appeal to employees, especially executives and managers who may have to relocate from high-priced Seattle.
Third, it’s in North Carolina. It’s a beautiful, green state with a mild climate but four true seasons. It has the coast, the mountains and college basketball. Americans are voting for North Carolina with their feet. Wake County alone grows by more than 60 people a day.
So, there’s a chance. But there are also reasons to think the odds are long.
First, it’s in North Carolina. The state is fine, but the state legislature isn’t. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos put up $2.5 million of his own money for a Washington State same-sex marriage initiative. The Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly supported a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and passed House Bill 2, the so-called “bathroom bill” opposed by many progressive corporate leaders. In the competition to land Amazon, North Carolina will feel the damage done by the reckless passage of HB2. The law was repealed, but Republican legislators are stirring the issue back to life. They’re complaining about a proposed court settlement supported by Gov. Roy Cooper that would extend nondiscrimination protections and says in part: “Transgender people are not prevented from the use of public facilities in accordance with their gender identity.”
Second, the Research Triangle region lacks adequate mass transportation and the state legislature has limited state support for it. The Triangle region’s three central counties, Orange, Durham and Wake, have approved taxes to build and expand mass transit, but a completed system is uncertain and, if built, years away. It’s true that Amazon’s commitment here could spur mass transit projects, but the company likely would prefer a region where such systems are already in place.
Third, the gain may not be worth the pain. The Research Triangle is struggling to keep up with growth now. Traffic is a mounting problem, there’s no regional power to coordinate development and housing costs are rising. A huge influx of tech workers would accelerate growth and put pressure on housing costs. In Seattle’s home county, King County, rents have more than doubled in the past 20 years and have increased by 65 percent since 2009. That rise has been accompanied by a sharp increase in the homeless population.
Whatever the outcome of the Triangle’s pitch, the process is well worth doing. It prompts the region to inventory its strengths and identify its drawbacks. Even if Amazon doesn’t come, it has given the region a clearer idea of what it is and what it wants to become.