A ploy. A farce. A PR stunt.
Amazon is taking it on the chin this week following reports that it altered course, settling on not one, but two locations — Crystal City in northern Virginia and Long Island City in Queens, N.Y., — for its so-called HQ2 project.
For economic development operatives in the 18 other cities which reportedly didn’t make the cut — from glitzy L.A. to Jeff Bezos’ hometown of Miami to the cheesesteak capital of the world Philadelphia — losing this ballyhooed HQ sweepstakes could be viewed as an unfortunate missed opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to land one of the world’s most important tech companies.
A juggernaut by every metric imaginable, Amazon alone could cement a region as a tech hub on the scale of Seattle or Silicon Valley, the proponents say.
But let me offer a bit of homespun Seattle advice. Take a deep breath, and now slowly exhale with a sigh of relief. Count your blessings.
You are going to be OK, if you lost this competition. In fact, your city may have won.
As Boston Globe correspondent Scott Kirsner put it — responding to the latest HQ2 plot twist — “being stiffed by Amazon is a good thing.“
And so it goes with Amazon.
Beyond the friendly smile logo, there’s a love-hate affair with this mysterious tech titan, perhaps most noticeable in Seattle where, ironically, tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars exist because of it.
At a conference in Palm Springs this week, an attendee asked me about the HQ2 speculation, and he was shocked to learn that Amazon is not beloved in its own hometown of Seattle.
It’s complex, I told him.
We saw this first-hand when the GeekWire team traveled to Amazon HQ2 finalist Pittsburgh earlier this year, part of our very own month-long HQ2 editorial experiment. A naïveté existed about Amazon, from city hall to startup incubators to the corridors of the universities.
It began to sink in. Outside of Seattle, Amazon is largely viewed as a nimble cutting-edge cheetah that can’t misstep, delivering packages and goods in a speedy manner, with a smile.
In Seattle, it’s not so much a smile, as a grimace.
The anger is everywhere, from the barista lamenting traffic congestion to the graffiti scrawled inside the Battery Street tunnel (See photo above).
And this has been the challenge with this entire HQ2 spectacle. No one really knows the real Amazon. No one understands what they’ll get.
A new-and-improved Amazon — God forbid we call it Day Two Amazon.
Jeff Bezos — a sci-fi nerd with the Howler monkey laugh whose entrepreneurial energy is unmatched —proudly proclaimed a few years ago that he’s willing to be misunderstood for very long periods of time.
Bezos is predictable for one thing … being unpredictable.
For all of the misunderstanding, this much we do know.
Amazon changes things. It can’t help itself.
At GeekWire HQ1 — located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, about a mile away from Amazon’s massive South Lake Union footprint (don’t you dare call it a campus) — we’ve had a front row seat to the change.
And — as with any change — it comes with new realities, new expectations and a new way of viewing the world. Some of it’s good, but not all.
Amazon plays by different rules, not only tossing unexpected curve balls, but doing so with beach balls. It changes, and morphs faster than even the smallest startups, using speed and smarts to its advantage, a trait typically lost as companies top 100 or 1,000 or 100,000 employees.
Not so at Amazon. It’s entrepreneurial energy only seems to accelerate.
Fashion. Logistics. Cloud Computing. Entertainment. Advertising. It’s moving so fast into so many areas, just keeping up with the news is a challenge. It’s not just The Everything Store. It’s the Everything Company.
The problem is, cities don’t move at the same pace. And attracting a 100-person startup is different than this unusual startup, which at last count had 613,300 employees.
Even so, cities need to ask themselves: Do they want the Amazon wild card in their community? Can they possibly harness it? Is it worth it?
Sure, the promise of high-paying jobs and construction cranes is enticing. We’ve watched those rise almost over night in Seattle, but it’s not all pretty along the shores of Puget Sound.
Sorry, Perry Como, the bluest skies you’ve ever seen are … not necessarily in Seattle.
There are byproducts — the $15 speciality cocktails; the demolition of the local bowling alley; the loss of a sense of place.
Homelessness. Congestion. Failing infrastructure. A growing divide between the haves and have nots.
A Seattle freeze that’s now icing over to pure anger.
Seattle’s soul skipped a beat as Amazon mushroomed in size.
Of course, not all of this can be placed on the shoulders of Amazon. And I always like to ground Seattle’s problems in a Rust Belt reality.
I moved to Seattle from northern Ohio in 1995, a year after Bezos started Amazon. And the issues and challenges Seattle now faces in terms of skyrocketing rents, congestion, new construction — in large part due to Amazon’s rise and the booming tech economy — pale in comparison to the issues facing Akron or Cleveland.
I’d still rather be in Seattle.
There are two theories that exist about Amazon and it’s complex relationship with its HQ1 hometown. And they are both worth considering, especially as Crystal City and Long Island City prepare for this new era.
One is that Amazon landed in Seattle — chosen because of its tech talent, tax structure and proximity to book distributors — and grew so big, so fast and beyond Bezos’ wildest expectations that the impact — both positive and negative —was an accidental circumstance of unprecedented entrepreneurial success.
The other theory, is a bit more Machiavellian: Amazon viewed Seattle as a rich oil patch, and once it sucked that patch dry, it decided to go somewhere else to drill its next well.
The reality probably exists somewhere between the two.
As the HQ2 drama comes to a close and the Champagne bottles are put on ice in the HQ2 winning cities, check out this parting advice from longtime Seattle resident and GeekWire reporter Kurt Schlosser who penned this column shortly after the HQ2 race was announced 14 months ago: Be careful what you wish for, Amazon suitors, a lot will change with the tech giant in your city.
And, if you’re Austin or Atlanta, Denver or Dallas or one of the other HQ2 finalists which is feeling a bit blue, I’d suggest taking a different path.
Enjoy your cities for the great places they are today — so grab a fish sandwich at the wonderful Wholey’s in Pittsburgh or stroll by Wrigley Field in Chicago with spring in your step. Because in a blink of an eye — the community you once knew can disappear.