Baltimore’s pitch for Amazon’s second headquarters was much like the one social activists made after the 2015 riots — if you want to change the world, this is the best place to do it. Trouble is, Amazon appears not to have been particularly interested in the potential for its proposed $5 billion, 50,000-job development project to transform a beleaguered city. Of the 20 places that made its list of finalists, the only one that could qualify as distressed by any rational definition is Newark; mainly, it was a where’s-where list of boomtowns from Austin to Toronto and Raleigh to L.A.
That’s Amazon’s prerogative, of course. It is in fierce competition for talent with other tech giants, and adding another cool city to to its existing uber-cool city home in Seattle makes sense. Indeed, Amazon never said anything about wanting to use its new headquarters to advance social or economic justice goals; it was looking for someplace with a strong workforce, extensive public transportation and an excellent quality of life. We can engage in municipal self-flagelation about our national reputation — murders, cold schools, police corruption and a hospital gown-clad patient escorted by security to a bus stop bench in sub-freezing temperatures — but the lack of an interconnected subway and light rail system probably meant more. That’s presumably why the one Maryland bid to make Amazon’s list was Montgomery County.
But Amazon is missing out on something here, and not just the opportunities presented by the shovel-ready mega-project being developed in Port Covington (where The Sun’s printing plant is located). CEO Jeff Bezos should read, assuming he hasn’t already, the letter BlackRock founder and CEO Lawrence D. Fink wrote this week. The head of a $6 trillion (with a “t”) money management firm told corporate leaders that his company would make decisions with an eye toward the social impact of the firms it invests in. “We … see many governments failing to prepare for the future, on issues ranging from retirement and infrastructure to automation and worker retraining,” he wrote. “As a result, society is increasingly turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges. Indeed, the public expectations of your company have never been greater. Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must deliver not only financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”
Amazon is at the forefront of questions about whether the evolving economy is leaving people behind, from its impact on brick-and-mortar businesses to the treatment of workers in its warehouses to the possibility that robots and drones will replace human workers. Its relentless expansion, innovation and efficiency are at once a great success story and a warning sign about the strength of our social contract. Putting HQ2 in Baltimore (or Detroit or Cleveland or Rochester or Buffalo) wouldn’t have changed that, but it would have at least nodded at a recognition that the company cannot merely perpetuate a system in which a few people and places get richer and the rest are left behind.
That’s the same question Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly face as they decide how much to offer Amazon to entice it to pick Montgomery County. Don’t get us wrong, we dearly hope MoCo gets HQ2, and we’re happy to argue its merits, from its off-the-charts statistics on educational attainment to its nearly unparalleled ethnic and racial diversity. We certainly urge Governor Hogan to go after it whole-heartedly. But should Maryland be willing to offer as much to bring Amazon to what is perennially one of the wealthiest counties in America as it would to a city struggling from a half-century of job losses, disinvestment and population decline? Absolutely, we should offer incentives to bring Amazon to Maryland, but we must be mindful not to put ourselves in a position for decades to come where we’ll be hamstrung from investing where it’s really needed.
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