A Plea to Amazon: Make HQ2 Matter

Hey, Amazon: I think it is great that you are seeking “HQ2,” opting to not further concentrate your headquarters in Seattle. I think it is great that you (almost certainly) will chose a U.S. city for it (sorry, Toronto!), even though you are most definitely an international company. I think it will be great for whatever city you pick, with not just your projected 50,000 high paying jobs and $5b in construction but also all the expected spillover effects on the local economy.

I’m just afraid you are going to miss your chance to make your choice really matter.

You had a very thoughtful set of criteria. You got a long list — over 200 — of applicants, most of which put in significant time, thought, and effort into their proposals (sorry, Stonecrest). You went through an undoubtedly very analytical process to narrow the field to the existing 20 finalists, each of which has a strong case and fierce advocates.

The problem is, though, that none of those cities really needs you. Sure, they’ll be happy to have you, but each would be, in varying degrees, just the rich getting richer. You picked them because, for the most part, they already havc strong economies and are nice places to live.

But, really, does Washington DC or Boston really need to make the cost of housing higher? Does Austin really need something else to boost its tech prospects? Does Pittsburgh really need to attract even more tech talent? Are you really going to matter to New York or Chicago? Do Denver or Miami need to be any more attractive to young people? After the Super Bowl, does Philadelphia need another big win?

No. They all would just be the rich getting rich. I have one name for you, a name not on your short list: Detroit.

Pick up your jaw. Yes, I said Detroit, and, no, I’m not from there. I’m not even from Michigan. I didn’t go to school there either. I have, I must confess, done my best to avoid visiting Detroit. I’ve read about their woes over the last 40 years with increasing degrees of shock and dismay. It was once a great city, an economic powerhouse, but it is fallen and doesn’t seem to be able to pick itself up again.

That is exactly why you should go there.

Add 50,000 new jobs to Washington DC, and it will barely notice, except that the Beltway traffic will get even worse. Add 50,000 new jobs to Atlanta and imagine how long the waits at Hartsfield-Jackson will be. Add 50,000 new jobs to Boston and many of them will have to root for the Patriots; we can’t have that (Go, Steelers!).

But add them to Detroit — well, people will notice.

Dan Gilbert is trying to do it, putting in billions of dollars to help spur revitalization efforts. There is plenty of housing stock, although admittedly not all in great shape, and efforts to turn the corner are underway. Detroit is trying to become a leader in “green infrastructure.” All that is inspiring, but not enough.

And Lord knows they need the jobs.

OK, I get that you want the right kind of workers, but, ICYMI, the University of Michigan’s computer science program is ranked higher than the University of Washington’s, and Seattle has worked out well for you. Not to mention you could easily pull from highly ranked programs at Purdue, Notre Dame, and Michigan State (you may find Ohio State grads harder to entice), all within an hour or two of Detroit.

You want logistics; you got it. Detroit has a big airport, easy access to I-75/I-90/I-94, a major seaport, and plenty of railroad lines. All those cars manufactured in Detroit didn’t use drones to get to everywhere in the world.

You liked Tony Hsieh well enough to buy Zappos, so maybe you should talk about what drove him to try to build the “most community-focused large city in the world” with his $350 million investment in Las Vegas. OK, so maybe it hasn’t quite panned out — yet — but he’s learned a few lessons that might be helpful. Locating in Detroit could be his vision writ large.

Madison McVeigh/CityLab

I’m willing to believe that Detroit, and Michigan, couldn’t match some the bribes — umm, sorry, “incentives” — that were offered by other localities, but that’s sort of my point. The places that can afford to pay you off to locate there don’t really need you to be there. It is the places that can’t who need your investment.

Make Montgomery County, Maryland or Northern Virginia even richer, and who cares? Rescue Detroit, though, and history will remember you.

Bill Gates hopes to be remembered more for what his foundation accomplishes than for what he did at Microsoft. Jeff Bezos could have the same kind of mark without even have to give any of his own money away. This should be an investment that pays off.

Amazon has made a huge difference to Seattle, but, honestly, more people probably associate Starbucks with it. Right now people at best think of Detroit as Motor City and at worst as a cautionary tale, but if you move there, if you take that chance, Amazon is what its 21st century identity will be.

Take that, Henry Ford.

Low prices, one-click purchasing, and one day delivery are impressive, but rescuing a city? That’s heroic. Jeff Bezos may be the richest man in the world, but take a chance like this and he may become the most admired.

And if you just can’t override that short list, at least go for Newark, which has its own tale of woe.

Be bold. Make history. Help make a once great city great again. We already respect (and maybe fear) you; do something that will not only impress us but let us love you. Make your choice matter.



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Kim Bellard

Kim Bellard


Curious about many things, some of which I write about — usually health care, innovation, technology, or public policy. Never stop asking “why” or “why not”!