Baltimore was already coming off a string of bad news — record homicides, unheated schools, an alleged patient dumping — when Thursday morning brought yet more: The city had failed to make the list of 20 finalists for Amazon’s much-coveted second headquarters.
Did the former contribute to the latter?
“It’s hard to say what contributed to Amazon’s decision,” said Staci M. Zavattaro, an expert on city branding and associate professor of public administration at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. But, she added, the cities that rose to the top for Amazon generally have “pretty positive brand images.
“It seems that the cities that made the final cut already have everything,” said Zavattaro, author of the books “Cities for Sale” and “Place Branding through Phases of the Image.” “There’s transit, there’s already housing. They’re sports cities — they’ve already been through that process. They’re all brand-name cities.”
Baltimore’s image in the national press has taken several hits in recent weeks. It ended 2017 with a staggering 343 homicides. Media coverage here and beyond made much of the fact that the number far outstripped the homicide toll in cities many times bigger, such as New York — which, as it turns out, is one of Amazon’s finalists.
Then, as the city went through a brutal cold snap, the heating systems in multiple schools failed, and images of kids in parkas and mittens shivering in their classrooms sped through social media and cable news channels, as did a video a bystander took of a woman clad only in a hospital gown and socks being ejected from an emergency room and left at a bus stop.
How that might have affected Amazon’s thinking as it chose among more than 200 cities and regions that sought its second headquarters is anyone’s guess, Zavattaro said.
“For Baltimore, it could have gone either way,” she said. “Companies can see these images and stories and think, ‘Oh, I’m not sure about that city.’ Or they could say, ‘We don’t care.’ ”
Seema Iyer, an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business school, said she believes larger, structural problems in Baltimore had more of an impact than recent news events.
Looking at the East Coast cities that made the cut — including New York, Boston and Philadelphia — “they all have a really robust transit and transportation system,” said Iyer, who oversees the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, which collects data on quality-of-life indicators.
“That’s a structural deficiency for our city,” she said. “We don’t have an excellent way to get people around.”
Iyer said Amazon’s decision makes Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision in 2015 to kill the Red Line, which would have created an east-west light rail system through the city, even more regrettable. Amazon’s request fror proposals specifically included access to mass transit as one of its “core preferences.”
Iyer said she hopes the city’s failed bid to land the online retail giant will prompt some soul-searching among city and state leaders, and a realization that transit is key to economic development.
“Maybe this is our wake-up call,” she said. “We have got to start having that conversation.”