My dad likes to send me, as dads do, links to articles from the hometown newspaper back in Rochester, N.Y. This week, when Amazon announced its intention to build a second giant headquarters in a city other than Seattle, Rochester effectively asked — to borrow a line from Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson — “Why not us?”
Rochester is certainly not alone in perking up over the possibilities. Cities big and small, whether they meet the criteria on Amazon’s request for proposals or not, are going to take a shot at impressing the e-commerce giant in the hopes of landing 50,000 tech jobs.
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But it’d be hard to paint a more contrasting picture than that of the two cities that have meant so much to me — the one I grew up in and the one I have lived in for the past 21 years. Most Seattle transplants can surely say that these days, especially in the wake of the city’s rapid growth.
A lot of what I remember about Rochester, especially in my context of being a tech reporter, is tied to what that city has lost over the years — most importantly its once-proud status as a legitimate company town. Eastman Kodak Co. employed more than 60,000 people in the area in the 1980s, according to the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper. Xerox and Bausch & Lomb also had world headquarters in the city, and IBM employed more than 8,000 there at one point.
In 2015, three years after Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, The New York Times wrote about how the company was clinging to a future after film. The once mighty maker of photographic necessities, with 145,000 employees worldwide at its peak, was down to 8,000. For a company that was “as big in its day as Apple and Microsoft have been for later generations,” its failure to pivot quickly during the rise of the digital age was ruinous, the Times wrote.
In Rochester, dozens of Kodak buildings have been bulldozed in the wake of the decline, and massive employee parking lots sit empty. My grandfather, who spent 40 years at Kodak and rose to become the superintendent of the roll film division, died years before I could show him such depressing news on an iPhone.
But all is not completely lost. The city and region are still home to great universities and other lines of work, there are a few minor league sports teams, and you can buy multiple houses for what one costs in Seattle.
My parents still call Rochester home, and when I visit, the nostalgia runs deep — thanks mainly to famous food ranging from chicken wings to pizza to hot dogs and frozen custard. And Amazon lovers stoked about the acquisition of Whole Foods would do well to set foot in a Wegmans grocery store someday.
But Rochester will never be Seattle — the company town I have called home since 1996. When I got here, it was still a Boeing town; and then it was a Microsoft region; and now it’s an Amazon town. The Seattle Times reported last month that “Amazon’s footprint in Seattle is more than twice as large as any other company in any other big U.S. city.”
For better or worse, depending on what kind of traffic I’m sitting in, Amazon has reshaped my city. Inside cool buildings, thousands of people work to build cool, modern devices and services. And I can see why Rochester, and every other city that will line up — especially those in America’s Rust Belt — would want a piece of that. Office towers full of high-paid workers transform and prop up everything.
Robert Duffy, president of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to Jeff Bezos this week urging the Amazon CEO “to consider our community, which would be an ideal location for Amazon HQ2,” adding that “Rochester has an abundance of strengths that completely align with the needs of this project.”
Duffy also wrote Bezos earlier this year, urging him to keep the city in mind for future Amazon expansion, and touting the region’s skilled work force, proximity to major cities in the northeast, and manufacturing infrastructure, according to the D&C. Duffy, who is a former mayor of the city and lieutenant governor of New York, told the newspaper, “If you don’t take any swings you’re not going to get any hits.”
Some of the available office space and land cited as potential locations for HQ2 include old Kodak property, obviously. A long-empty mall that sits undeveloped north of downtown — where I worked in a Gap clothing store as a kid — is 1 million square feet. Amazon would need eight of those malls, the newspaper notes.
While Amazon’s search for a second home seems to signal that it’s preparing to pump the brakes on its rapid growth in Seattle, it’s impossible for me to imagine that Seattle could suffer some of the same fate as Rochester. Amazon’s relentless pursuit of innovation already distinguishes it greatly from Kodak and the mistakes the film giant made around digital technology.
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And as ironic and interesting as it would be to have Amazon impact both my home in Seattle and my hometown of Rochester, I can’t picture Duffy and the city’s swing being anything but a miss. There are far too many other possible locations with more people, infrastructure, transit and other checks in the boxes Amazon is seeking.
And I’m OK with that.
Rochester is kind of like an old photograph for me — taken on Kodak film, no doubt, because so many members of my family worked there. It’s a little faded and dog-eared, but it’s a beloved memory.
And when I fly back there, and the city comes into focus upon landing, I can be happy that it hasn’t developed into another Seattle.