All up and down the Eastern Seaboard, the rush is on to lure one of the biggest corporate projects in generations: a second headquarters location for Amazon.com. The Seattle company and its billionaire founder Jeff Bezos have redefined retail and internet services and now they’re looking at an expansion that could bring up to 50,000 jobs and a corporate campus presence valued at $5 billion.
Economic developers are salivating at the opportunity, giddy at the prospect of being home to Amazon’s HQ2. Here’s a boilerplate quote issued this week from one: “We hit the marks in every category — land availability, business friendly environment, labor force, logistics, cultural community fit and so much more.”
Sound like Howard County? It very well could be. And that statement was issued by Ken Ulman, a former two-term county executive who was Howard’s chief cheerleader. But now Ulman is a hired gun for the University of Maryland, where his title is chief strategy officer, and he’s making the case for the headquarters near the flagship campus of the University of Maryland, in Prince George’s County and College Park. In corporate relocation battles, loyalty is a fleeting thing.
Howard County ought to step up with a proposal of its own if only to demonstrate it’s no shrinking violet in the region, where Baltimore City and County have joined the hunt for a prime corporation. In addition to all the “marks” Ulman, and other promoters, have listed for their areas, Howard can point to its quality schools, low crime rate, proximity to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and (relatively) lower cost of living among major metropolitan areas that want to be contenders.
It’s unlikely that Howard County will make any short list of urban-suburban sites. One major shortfall is the lack of a sophisticated public transportation network necessary to move thousands of workers. Another is the possibility that some elected leaders would be reluctant to make tax concessions that are sure to be a mandatory part of an incentive package; witness the recent challenge to tax increment financing plans for Columbia. Not to mention the larger question of whether such a massive project would be a good fit with the county’s long-term business strategy and land-use goals.
In this economic development contest, Howard should at least show it can be a player – but won’t be played.