Why can't Austin, Philly, Research Triangle Park and Baltimore compete for the economic-development win of our lifetimes?

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I don’t have any special knowledge about where Amazon will place its second (for now) headquarters. Some cynics have said that Jeff Bezos already knew where he wanted to go, suggesting the competition is a ruse to wring the highest payola possible. All I can do is make educated guesses based on what Amazon said it wants and cities I know fairly well.

Thus, in my column about markers for 2018, I laid down my top picks: Denver, Dallas, New York City, Boston and the D.C. suburbs on rail transit. Toronto if Amazon wants to hedge against Trumpism. Dark horses: Atlanta, the Twin Cities and Pittsburgh. I made the assumption that Amazon wanted to be outside the same time zone as its Seattle base, so didn’t consider West Coast cities.

All this assumes Amazon is being honest about its desires and continues its historical “green” choices — and these are not merely good corporate citizenship; top talent loves cool cities. If not, any of the approximately 238 localities that applied could be in contention — most can only offer suburban office “parks” or dead malls, isolated and car-dependent. The RFP said the company “is considering” greenfield sites, as well as infill locations and retrofitting buildings.

Some readers questioned my favorites, so I’ll give them their due.

Why not Austin? The Texas capital has a major research university, an abundance of skilled tech workers and, downtown, a cool vibe. This has allowed it to become a significant player in tech. Another bonus: Two Republican U.S. Senators.

But in the RFP, access to mass transit is a “core preference,” and Austin is a transit tragedy. With repeated failure to build light rail and only one commuter-rail line, Austin is a traffic nightmare. It also lacks a major airport. And it’s smallish (a little more than 2 million) as a metro. These problems also hobble North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Why not Philadelphia? As a reader put it: “Intellectual Infrastructure, including several elite universities and teaching medical centers. Cheap land! I repeat…cheap land!  And lots of it!” This includes the site of the closed Navy Yard, which the city is trying to make into an innovation district on the model of South Lake Union.

I love Philly. It’s got history, magnificent urban bones, a vibe, great downtown, decent airport, abundant rail transit (and on Amtrak’s higher-speed Northeast Corridor), walkability, and, as the reader said, elite universities such as Penn and Temple.

The downsides, however, are significant (and also apply to Baltimore): The worst deep poverty in the nation; high crime, and a history of racial division and political corruption. I’m not sure Amazon wants to take on a fixer-upper.

But the people who really know aren’t saying. We don’t know how much financial incentives will tip the selection. Maybe a March Madness bracket map hangs on a wall somewhere in the bowels of HQ1.


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