Are Austin and Atlanta really the top contenders for the prize? Let's examine advantages and downsides.

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Gambling was one of the few vices I didn’t pick up when I went through the devil’s cafeteria line, so caveat lector. Still, I took notice when my colleague Matt Day reported that a top bookmaker has Austin and Atlanta as the top cities likely to land Amazon’s HQ2 (the odds have since shifted a bit).

If Amazon is being honest in what it’s seeking for a base “equal” to its Seattle headquarters, those two cities have some advantages — but also potentially fatal disadvantages.

Austin has an abundance of skilled tech talent, the high-powered University of Texas and a cool urban vibe. If Amazon is seeking two Republican U.S. Senators to have its back in D.C., score another point for the capital of the Lone Star State. Texas has the means to offer lavish incentives, too.

Yet Austin’s downsides are serious. First, it has terrible traffic congestion and sprawl, with almost no serious transit. Second, it lacks a major international airport. Finally, while Austin itself is tolerant, Texas is a heartland of crazy reaction. That might not deter creative-class workers, but it would make them think twice.

Atlanta is a more complicated bet. If it persuaded Amazon to build in the city itself, on the footprint of MARTA (our lost subway), the Empire City of the South could be a formidable contender. It has plenty of talent, although less so in tech; universities, especially highly regarded Georgia Tech; one of the biggest airports in the world, and some urban vibe.

On the other hand, the metropolitan area is one of the nation’s most spectacular sprawl and congestion disasters. Also, despite the romantic “where Peachtree meets Sweet Auburn” narrative about progressive Atlanta and racial harmony, the reality is more complicated. Atlanta did avoid the worst white supremacist behavior during the Civil Rights Era. This helped propel it past Birmingham, Ala., to become the economic capital of the South. But the metropolitan area is riven by mostly quiet racial and class divisions and antagonisms. Racism is one reason badly needed MARTA extensions and commuter rail have been repeatedly blocked. The suburbs don’t want “those people” coming there. It played a role in the Atlanta Braves moving from the center city to majority-white, suburban Cobb County.

Georgia has the means, toolbox and experience to “pay to play.” But would its Republican-controlled statehouse do this for the city of Atlanta, majority blue and heavily African-American?

You can watch me and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s business columnist, Matt Kempner, discuss Atlanta’s prospects in depth here.

I don’t have any inside dope and am often wrong. But I’ll stick with Denver, Dallas (with the Texas political caveat above) and, if Amazon wants to hedge its bets against a retrograde America, Toronto. Other strong candidates: Boston, the District of Columbia and New York City. Dark horses still worth considering: Minneapolis-St. Paul and Philadelphia. All have the urban, talent, transit, university and airport bases covered. How much they’ll pony up… that’s the unknown.


Today’s Econ Haiku:

Jeff Flake the hero

Went on to vote for the banks

Green smudge on his cape