Amazon may be reacting to Seattle's extreme political, social and cultural polarization by seeking a second base in a red state such as Texas. This would potentially give Amazon more political protection from GOP lawmakers — remember, President Trump has threatened antitrust action against Amazon.
Unpacking Amazon’s decision to seek a second “equal” headquarters along with its Seattle home requires some care.
In an age dominated by vulture capitalists and financial engineering, Jeff Bezos is the great business genius of the new century. The real deal. So although this promises to be the economic-development catch of the decade — $5 billion and 50,000 well-paid jobs somewhere — don’t expect him to follow conventional corporate location wisdom. With due respect to Apple’s onetime advertising motto, Bezos really does think different.
Why? Answering this question fully may be impossible with a company so opaque. But I’ll take some guesses.
Bezos and his lieutenants may be reacting to our extreme political, social and cultural polarization by seeking a second base in a red state such as Texas. This would potentially give Amazon more political protection from Republican lawmakers — remember, President Donald Trump has threatened antitrust action against Bezos. Or they might be assessing America’s reactionary turn on immigration, trade and world leadership, and all the risks involved. In this case, a Canadian second headquarters would make sense.
Where? If Bezos stays to form, he wants a city, not only because of his commitment to sustainability but also to attract top talent. A suburban area with good transit might also make the cut. I suspect traditional incentives will play less of a role. The company will certainly take them and play localities off against each other. But talent, education (especially with a strong research university), a cool vibe, good air-travel connections and transit will be the big factors for the finalists. This is not going to be like the 20th-century moves from downtowns to far-flung, car-dependent office “parks.”
Here’s my handicapping (and my colleague Matt Day has a list, too): Toronto, Denver and Dallas-Fort Worth would be at the top. They’ve got it all. Austin has tech talent, the University of Texas and a huge coolness factor — but it lacks a real international airport. Atlanta, with a huge airport and multiple universities is a sprawl mess — unless Amazon wanted to build a Seattle-like district in the city itself. There it could take advantage of “our” subway, MARTA (that’s where federal funding went when Seattle turned it down in 1970 — D’oh!). Vancouver, B.C., would compete but it’s in the same time zone as Seattle and ultraexpensive.
Some dark horses worth considering: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis. They have great city bones and potential, and would be affordable for an Amazon urban-innovation district. Calgary has a strong light-rail system. Monterrey and Guadalajara offer Mexico’s most dynamic business and information technology cities respectively. Phoenix has loads of land and potential, especially downtown, but lacks the educated workforce and suffers unfairly from Arizona’s intolerant reputation. North Carolina’s Research Triangle is always in the running but very car dependent.
On to Seattle. Was it something we did? Something we said?
Seriously, this is a potentially ominous development. The mayor’s race finally has a real economic issue, if the candidates can bring themselves to discuss it.
A majority of the City Council has been playing sandbox social democracy in recent years. The higher minimum wage appears doable — thanks to the city’s prosperity, not the diktat of the vanguard of the revolution. Other policies have put added burdens on business, with a whiff in the progressive air that Amazon is somehow to blame for such complex ills as the increase in street people.
Time for a reality check. Amazon says it has made an investment of $38 billion in Seattle. Construction fees alone have helped finance many of the most prized progressive initiatives. Take the benefits from being the hometown of one of the most influential corporations on the planet for granted at your peril.
I can’t recall a situation where a major corporation had two “equal” headquarters. This was often a promise in the bank mega-mergers of the 1990s — but one city always became the real HQ. This matters for many reasons: Home of the best jobs; the place where decisions are made about deploying capital and employment; where the CEO spends the most time; disproportionately benefiting from philanthropy and taxes, and spinning off talent to start companies.
Most of all is size. This is not a tiny “suitcase headquarters” by some Sunbelt airport, close to the CEO’s favorite golf course. Amazon employs 40,000 in Seattle and occupies more office space than the next 40 biggest employers combined. There’s nothing else like it in America.
Even slowing from the pace of growth here would be felt in mostly negative ways. It might moderate house prices some — but remember that cuts two ways, hurting owners’ biggest source of household wealth. In the long run, barring war, volcano eruption or severe earthquake, Seattle real estate is now West Coast pricey.
Things could get dicey in a serious recession or other downshift where Amazon must make choices, including which location becomes the real headquarters amid a severe restructuring and downsizing. The Midwest is littered with headquarters losses. If Seattle lost out in such a scenario, it would make Boeing’s move to Chicago look like a brief squall by comparison.
Many will say it can’t happen. Amazon has too many sunk costs here and Seattle offers too many advantages. Even in the worst-case scenario, other tech giants would rush to fill any void. Maybe it’s nothing more than Amazon deciding it’s outgrown the viable footprint here. And maybe all this is true.
But I wouldn’t bet the city’s future on it. I wonder when was the last time, if ever, the mayor’s office contacted Amazon to ask about its substantive concerns and needs? It might be time to change that tone-deafness and hubris.