Amazon should be a wake-up call to metro Detroit to think bigger

Creative Commons photo via Jason Mrachina.

Editor’s note: This post was co-written by yours truly but originally appeared on Daily Detroit.

All the Mayor’s horses and all of Dan Gilbert’s men are looking to put together a deal together with Amazon.

After all, the prospect of 50,000 jobs — with well-paying salaries — and a $5 billion total investment has the entire nation talking about where the online retail Goliath will build its second headquarters.

Beyond the breathless headlines that will get shared ad nauseum on Facebook, we should take this as an opportunity to look at our region in the mirror and ask ourselves how we could compete with the rest of the nation — for talent, for investment, and for the good of our own residents.

Detroit has some great advantages. We have a sleek, modern airport. It seems like everywhere is close to an interstate freeway, and we have plenty of properties that could, in theory — and if rehabbed — house this project. Think the old Packard Plant or the Fisher Body factory, each with more than 3 million square feet. We’ve also got vacant real estate in spades.

Taking over an iconic property in an historic American city like ours would represent the kind of strong statement that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos lives for. Remember, this is the guy who’s invested heavily in The Washington Post — a newspaper, for cryin’ out loud. A guy who wants to one day deliver your purchases via drone. Going someplace obvious like Silicon Valley or New York feels way too pedestrian to be a real possibility.

Even pundits like Richard Florida are saying that Detroit’s a sleeper pick.

But there are some major areas where we come up short. We’re no closer than we were a couple years ago to having a real mass transit system. That’s a big one: One of the top requirements for the RFP was access to subways and/or light rail. Diversity was also mentioned; we’re among the least diverse regions in the nation.

This chart from CNBC puts Detroit almost dead last among cities that could contend. The only category out of the four they measured we even place in the top 20? Our airport access. Though truth be told, the fact they gave no consideration to real estate seems like a glaring omission; think it’d be easy to squeeze 8 million square feet out of New York City?

The chart makes it clear: Our region doesn’t rank in the top 20 in North America for job growth, labor force education, mass transit or university culture.

Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. | via Amazon

While the media can’t write enough about Detroit’s comeback — and there has been some important progress — the reality is we need to think bigger instead of focusing on scraps around the edges if more Detroiters are to find work and new opportunities.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try for Amazon, especially if it’s the right deal. But we shouldn’t follow Wisconsin’s example in landing Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn by giving away the farm in tax and other incentives.

We need to look at this as an opportunity to think bigger than we ever have before. We’re very good at using tax incentives and other lures to pull companies or major-league sports franchises from the suburbs to the city or vice versa.

But what we should be focusing on is overall growth.

There’s amazing, untapped potential in Detroiters on either side of 8 Mile to help us become the engine of the Midwestern economy, but our divisive culture and some of our leadership locks that potential in place with provincialism, short-term thinking and policies that fall laughably short of what leaders are doing in other, more economically robust regions.

The reality is if Detroit lands Amazon, or any company that isn’t simply transplanting itself from one Detroit-area location to another, most of the jobs even with programs to get Detroit residents skilled up will probably fall to suburbanites who will take that money back to their comparatively affluent tax bases across 8 Mile.

This could be a watershed moment in our region’s history.

We will either begin a true, inclusive rebound, or we’ll look back in 10 years and realize that we have faded into irrelevance, having missed what could be our greatest chance to regain our former glory as the creator of the middle class and opportunity for all.

Let’s use Amazon — whether or not we get it — as a rallying point, and move together as a region into the future.

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