[Note: GeekWire’s Todd Bishop is slated to appear on KUOW FM’s The Record in the noon hour today, with Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and Washington state Republican Party Chair Susan Hutchison, to discuss Amazon’s HQ2 proposal and the impact on Seattle. Listen on 94.9 FM in the Seattle region, or kuow.org.]
Amazon’s surprise announcement that it will put a second headquarters in another North American city, equal to its giant Seattle campus, highlights a divide between the company and its longtime hometown. That divide is not good for any of us in this region. Let’s use this as an opportunity to address the problem.
GEEKWIRE SPECIAL COVERAGE: Amazon to build second HQ in North America
The reaction to the announcement shows that some of Seattle’s leaders are completely under-appreciating the value of having Amazon continue to grow here. Yes, Amazon’s “peculiar” corporate personality and sometimes closed-off company culture contribute to the dysfunctional relationship, but the city’s leaders are also failing us by using divisive rhetoric, and by not engaging more constructively with the company.
To be clear, this is the responsibility of both Amazon and the city’s leaders. I agree with some of those leaders that the company is tone deaf in seeking tax breaks and other incentives from cities for “HQ2.” Amazon is so big and successful at this point, I understand the argument that the public shouldn’t be asked to prop up a venture worth upwards of $475 billion, run by one of the wealthiest people in the world.
It’s especially difficult to swallow given the impact Amazon has had on many Main Street retailers in these same communities.
Any Canadian city providing incentives to lure Amazon will have a lot of explaining to do to independent retailers paying high prop taxes.
— Dan Kelly (@CFIB) September 8, 2017
Amazon’s public request for proposals is, at least in part, a publicity stunt. Certainly its algorithms could could come up with a short list of cities that would meet its needs, without issuing an RFP. But this process is about making a public statement in Seattle and elsewhere, as much as it is about finding a second home. Amazon is saying it wants to be appreciated — and that appreciation, in its view, should include some special treatment in the form of financial benefit.
Here’s the bigger point: Amazon and the leaders of Seattle owe it to the people of this region to work together to make this a livable place for everyone. You’ve got some of the most innovative minds in the world at that company. Really, these are the same people who figured out how to deliver packages via drone.
Let’s get them engaged with the community, truly helping to solve this region’s problems. Yes, they’re doing good deeds such as putting a homeless shelter for families in one of their new buildings, and engaging more on a philanthropic level. But let’s think bigger. Let Seattle be a model for big companies and their communities working together to find innovative solutions to society’s biggest challenges.
For its part, Amazon could implement its own version of Google’s “20 percent time,” but instead allowing interested employees to dedicate maybe 10 percent of their time to civic innovation.
This relationship is the responsibility of both the company’s top executives and the city’s political leaders. This is where I disagree with the approach of some of our city’s leaders, including Councilmember Kshama Sawant saying that Amazon is holding Seattle “hostage.” This divisive rhetoric leads to an environment that makes it difficult to actually create a better city and region for everyone.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray also illustrated the disconnect in his statement last week that pledged to “immediately begin conversations with Amazon around their needs with today’s announcement and the company’s long-term plans for Seattle.”
They’re going to take this opportunity to begin conversations with Amazon about its needs? Really? Why wasn’t this happening before?
Amazon, for its part, took what can be read as a swipe at Seattle in explaining what it’s looking for in its second headquarters: “We want to find a city that is excited to work with us and where our customers, employees, and the community can all benefit.”
Come on, people. Let’s not use this situation as an excuse to lower our sights for this region. Let’s be the kind of place that can step up to the needs of a world-class, world-changing company. To be clear, not the demands of the company, but the actual needs.
Some of our city’s leaders believe these big tech companies have too much wealth and power, but that misses the historical perspective that these companies get mowed over by technology innovation themselves. Look at IBM or Ford or GM. Amazon wasn’t as big player in tech 5-10 years ago as it is now, and it could fade or move away just as quickly. If we’re not careful, Seattle could easily become the next Detroit.
There are a lot of cities that would kill for the kinds of problems that Amazon has created for Seattle. One of them will be given the opportunity. Here’s hoping its leaders can establish a better relationship with Amazon than ours have.
In the meantime, Seattle submitting its own response to Amazon’s RFP, even as a symbolic move, would be a good place to start healing the city’s relationship with the giant in its midst.