Op-Ed

From Seattle, a former Raleighite advises about living with Amazon

Where could Amazon's HQ2 end up if it came to the Triangle?

From RTP to Chatham Park,Triangle leaders have several locations in mind as they woo Amazon's second headquarters to the area. Here's a look at some of the prospects.
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From RTP to Chatham Park,Triangle leaders have several locations in mind as they woo Amazon's second headquarters to the area. Here's a look at some of the prospects.

Well, congratulations, Raleigh! You made the cut! You’re one of 20 cities that Amazon is considering for its second headquarters, better known as “HQ2.” (Best to get hip to the lingo if you want to stay in the game.)

Best, too, to know what you’re in for if you win the online retailer’s heart – the existence of which some Seattleites wonder about. Like Sasquatch, or sunshine past September.

But let’s not get into that just yet.

This civic lottery means one hell of a windfall: Amazon promises a $5 billion capital investment and 50,000 new tech jobs.

Win it, and the Triangle will be brimming with new energy, new money and that trademark Tar Heel satisfaction that comes from besting those bank nerds in Charlotte.

But I know the charm and ease of Raleigh; I lived there for 1994 to 1998. I know what’s at stake.

And I’ve lived in Seattle through Amazon’s explosive growth, which has been going on for several years and hasn’t let up.

Amazon narrows the field for the company’s second North American headquarters, and Raleigh is a finalist. Here are some pros and cons of each contender.

As I write this, two towers are being built on either side of my office building, and the beloved restaurant next door has closed. In its place, something Amazonian.

Since Amazon went from a bookstore Jeff Bezos started in his garage to an international retail and entertainment giant, Seattle is feeling like Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors.” That little plant we nurtured has grown into an open maw that is swallowing everything, including our soul – and giving us plenty of traffic in which to sit and ponder what we never saw coming.

The Triangle has had its share of growth and change. I was part of the onslaught of Yankees and outsiders who moved to Raleigh in the 1990s, when the area was exploding. I only stayed for four years, but it was long enough to see the toll it took on people who had long called Carolina home and wondered where their sense of place went.

The last decade of Amazon has brought that same feeling to Seattle, but on steroids.

Between 2010 and 2016, the company brought $38 billion to the local economy, created 53,000 non-Amazon jobs and boosted the personal income of non-Amazon employees by $17 billion.

You’d think everyone in Seattle would be feeling like Rich Uncle Pennybags, the Monopoly mascot. But no. More like Bloom County’s Bill the Cat.

We’re frazzled and anxious.

Thanks to Amazon’s unprecedented growth, Seattle became the fastest-growing big city in the country. From July 1, 2015, to July 1, 2016, we had a net gain of nearly 21,000 people. That’s 57 people per day, 1,710 a month and most of them out-of-staters who are driving natives out.

And they brought their cars. There are some 435,000 cars crammed into the city’s 84 square miles – or 5,185 cars per square mile.

So there are times when I’m sitting at a traffic light and don’t see a single Washington state license plate. No one is from here, and everyone is a little lost. You feel for them (we were all newcomers once), but also feel your palm twitching to lay on the horn.

There’s more. Seattle rents now rank among the most expensive in the United States.

It’s great for those of us who already own homes. My little farmhouse has doubled in value since I bought it 12 years ago. But if I sold it – and three people, two of them utter strangers, have asked if I was interested – I would likely struggle to get into another.

The middle-class is squeezed hard. A family of four needs to bring in $76,000 annually “just to scrape by,” according to a University of Washington study, which should give pause to anyone slinging drinks or ringing up toilet paper at Target.

Homelessness is at an all-time high, made up of people who were kicked out, priced out or came here with big dreams of new jobs they didn’t land. Instead, they settled into the tents and RVs that sit along Seattle’s side streets, or in the city’s crowded shelters. City leaders have thrown millions of dollars toward solutions and are proposing millions more be spent.

To its credit, Amazon has donated space and man-hours to Mary’s Place, a busy nonprofit that serves homeless families with children. But it’s just not enough.

In the day-to-day, the kind of growth Amazon has brought means you can’t just do things anymore. You have to leave early. Buy your tickets in advance. Scheme.

And you have to adjust. That little bar you go to every Thursday night? It’s suddenly packed, and they’ve raised the prices. Or they’re closing, and there’s an apartment building planned.

So enjoy your beloved little landmarks like The Player’s Retreat in Raleigh while they’re there.

There are, of course, things to celebrate. City blocks that were once as dark and gloomy as London during the Blitz have been gutted and glitzed, with new restaurants and buzzing bars, bright lights and life.

But this kind of growth has accelerated the “get off my lawn” attitude in people who lived here before Amazon exploded. The notorious “Seattle Freeze” – a Scandinavian-style reserve that makes connections difficult – is as solid as the iceberg that sunk the Titanic.

Go to other cities, though, and you’re grateful that Seattle seems to be sailing right along on a sea of data and analytics, food-delivery and Ubers.

It’s just that it happened so quickly; like opening your front door and seeing 435,000 people standing in your yard.

It makes that glass of wine waiting for you at the end of the day all the better.

And here in Seattle, Amazon Prime will deliver it to your door.

It’s the least they could do.

The Research Triangle Regional Partnership, which is an association of economic developers, hopes this video they produced promoting life in the Triangle will help woo Amazon to the area.

Nicole Brodeur, a columnist for The Seattle Times, was a News & Observer metro columnist from 1994-98. She can be reached at nbrodeur@seattletimes.com

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