North American cities are competing to host Amazon’s new headquarters. Here’s what they should do

Amazon HQ, Seattle. Image: Getty.

Cities across the US and Canada are locked in fierce competition to host Amazon’s second headquarters – known as HQ2. This is a big race: a shortlist of 20 cities seems to think this particular corporate investment can go a long way to solving some of their ongoing economic problems.

The process of inward investment – whereby large firms establish operations in a new location, either at home or abroad – has been seen for a long time as a way of creating positive economic change. They can create many new jobs in areas which are crying out for them, but they also bring new entrepreneurial activity, improved management skills, international know-how and a wider boost to other local businesses.

But these decisions can cause big problems. As is typical, Amazon has effectively set off a competition between a number of major US cities for its investment, which means they will all now be trying to outbid each other in terms of the “offer” they can make. This will include their existing assets such as land, infrastructure, transport connectivity and, most importantly, people – ideally with the right blend of skills and aptitudes that Amazon needs.

The big downside of this form of competition is that cities will start offering inducements of a fiscal nature – usually in the form of tax breaks – in order to capture the big prize.

A big prize

Amazon is now one of the biggest businesses in the world, having very successfully tapped into our growing desire for the convenience of online shopping and deliveries to our doorstep. The business is evolving and expanding, and the company now needs a second major HQ operation, in addition to their existing global control centre in Seattle.

With the promise of up to 50,000 new jobs and $5bn in construction investment, it is no surprise that over 230 US cities threw their hats into the ring for this major prize. Bids were invited, and then a shortlist of 20 possible host cities drawn up. This list includes major metropolises such as Atlanta, Boston and Los Angeles, as well as smaller cities such as Indianapolis, Miami, Austin and Columbus, Ohio.

Major inward investments do indeed have the capacity for major economic uplift. But it’s not just the volume of jobs that might be created locally which is important – it’s how this new investment becomes truly embedded into the local and wider regional economy. There are many examples of big business investing in an area, only to up sticks a decade later and move on to the next best location – often overseas - to take advantage of lower operating costs.

The long game

Each bidding city needs to be very clear about what it is prepared to offer Amazon. If this includes tax incentives, then there also needs to be an obvious, long-term payoff, in terms of local economic impact. The winning city must have a firm strategy in place for receiving Amazon, and this needs to cover a few significant factors. For instance, the city needs to have a clear idea of how many new jobs will really be created, how good they are and over what time period they will appear.


Amazon, like many big e-commerce businesses, will be quick to take advantage of the efficiency savings driven by automation and artificial intelligence. This may eventually reduce the total number of jobs available in its new facility.

Ideally, the city that wins will be able to create a business environment that encourages Amazon to locate more and better quality jobs away from Seattle and not just have lower-order, back office functions in its new operation.

Similarly, inward investment can have a major impact economically by strengthening local supply chains – those local businesses that can provide specialised goods and services to the new arrival. These supply chains need to operate effectively and be supported with managerial, infrastructural and skills enhancement, so that they become a critical part of Amazon’s business model. That way, the firm will not want to move away later on, because it cannot take its unique local supply chain operation with it. Better to stay put and keep investing in the host location.

The ConversationThe race to win the new Amazon HQ should not be a quick sprint to the finish. It’s more like a marathon that needs careful, long-term planning if the full benefits are to be achieved for the winning city.

Jim Coleman, Professor of Professional Practice, University of Westminster.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.