Amazon is destined to do just fine without creating a campus in Queens, and Long Island City has a bright future without Amazon. On this most basic level, the behemoth online retailer’s decision Thursday to abandon half its much-heralded HQ2 “second headquarters” proposal in the face of public opposition — leaving intact the other half in northern Virginia as well as a smaller concurrent operations center planned for Nashville — isn’t really all that big a deal. Surely, it’s not a death knell for the use of public subsidies to entice already-successful companies to relocate or expand, as some might have us believe. If there is a lesson here (as there must be when a private-public deal blows up so spectacularly), it may well be this: When it’s time to decide where to locate 25,000 well-paid jobs, put them where they are needed, not just where it’s least risky.
That sounds awfully preachy, doesn’t it, this notion that Amazon or any other for-profit corporation should give a fig about the “greater good” or helping distressed communities? Amazon’s Jeff Bezos certainly seems to think about the public good when it comes to another major one of his investments. His ownership of The Washington Post and his commitment to journalism (not to mention his recent choice to challenge the parent company of the National Enquirer and their alleged blackmail scheme against him) suggests he has other interests beyond short-term profits. But leave aside ethics and morality (well, just for argument’s sake) and consider what happens when corporations invest only in communities that are already prosperous.
There are examples. In northern California’s Silicon Valley or in Seattle, local officials aren’t rolling out multi-billion-dollar red carpets for more high-paying tech jobs, they are dealing with an affordable housing crisis and homelessness as well as a yawning wage gap and an accompanying inability to fill middle class posts like, say, school teachers, police officers or firefighters. It’s not tax incentives but tax increases that are being debated to deal with the fallout of boomtown prosperity. If you aren’t in the tech industry or in a similarly high-paying position, good luck trying to live in even the least desirable neighborhood in San Francisco — or even within 30 miles of it. And those lengthened commutes — and people living in their cars — have a big impact on public infrastructure. No wonder some New Yorkers were skeptical; they’ve seen Manhattan for themselves and don’t necessarily want their borough to be the same.
Now, imagine if instead of Long Island City, Amazon had settled on chosen HQ2 finalists like Newark or Indianapolis. Think those cities would have balked? Better yet, what if Amazon looked beyond its finalists, including Montgomery County here in Maryland, and considered locations where it might truly be transformative as in, dare we say, Baltimore’s Port Covington where Amazon could occupy a space alongside Under Armour? (And, of course, The Baltimore Sun, which has a long-term lease on its printing plant and newsroom offices there.) Mr. Bezos wouldn’t just be assured of financial support, he’d be regarded as a hero, particularly as his investment prospered and the chronic issues plaguing the city gradually melted away. There is no greater tonic for a public school system, for example, than the combination of public investment, involved parents and well-prepared students. We know this because we’ve seen what happens when those things are lacking.
One imagines that the bean-counters at Amazon headquarters gave a lot of thought to things like the availability of tech workers, the richness of tax incentives or the proximity to their supply chain, maybe even to the existing quality-of-life issues their workforce would confront (including, sadly, gun violence). But the evidence suggests they didn’t think much about how they might impact the social good. In retrospect, that was short-sighted. Amazon likely wouldn’t be in this position if it had selected a location where it was needed. Did Amazon (or whatever mega-corporation next goes looking for a new campus) learn that lesson? We’re dubious. It’s great that Gov. Larry Hogan and Port Covington’s developers are reaching out to Amazon, but we are skeptical even a company that fundamentally changed how America shops and does business can see the enormous potential of an opportunity that requires a fresh perspective and a willingness to gamble on something bold.