Why it’s perfectly OK that Detroit lost out on the Amazon HQ2 bid

And in the end, Detroit will not get Amazon’s HQ2. No $5 billion investment, no 50,000 new jobs. We didn’t even make the top 20 finalists.

I don’t think this is a bad thing, at all. If we ask ourselves the right questions about why we fell short and are honest with ourselves about what we must do, we can use this moment to lift ourselves up as a city and region.

Because let’s be real: One company isn’t going to do that for us, no matter how dominant or tech-savvy or focused on the future they are. Here in the home of the Big Three and the boom-and-bust economic cycles of the auto industry, we ought to have figured that out a long time ago.

No one’s coming to save us from ourselves. Only we can do that.

There were probably a lot of good ideas that came out of the joint Detroit-Windsor bid, and we absolutely should continue to pursue them doggedly despite losing out on the online mega-retailer. We absolutely should be thinking more as a region — including our Canadian neighbors to the south — and less like the warring collection of mostly well-off, white suburbs and desperately impoverished, black inner city that we’ve been for decades.

We’ve got tons of empty, developable land, some good economic momentum, rising demand for urban amenities and, in the name “Detroit,” a powerful global brand. We’ve got access to abundant fresh water and agricultural products, a world-class airport, rail infrastructure, arts and culture, engineering and manufacturing know-how, and top research universities.

Regional leaders were reportedly planning to announce their new proposal for resuscitating the RTA transit plan next week; let’s hope the bad news about Amazon doesn’t kill that momentum (and that the proposal is actually a decent one). Let’s absolutely launch ferry service between Detroit and Windsor and build up our riverfront. And if Detroit doesn’t have enough talent for Amazon, as the company reportedly said, then let’s use that bit of brutal honesty to take a hard look at shoring up school funding and educational equity.

But not all the ideas hatched in the bid are worth keeping.

There’s little doubt that economic development today has become a zero-sum gain, with states, cities and regions all perfectly willing to trample one another to offer companies financial incentives to lure jobs. But our Amazon bid went way overboard, offering decades worth of tax exemptions and even allowing the company to pocket state income taxes generated by its employees. For a company valued at more than $623 billion. Led by a man worth more than $100 billion with a paltry record of philanthropy (think that’d be a good fit in a place like Detroit, with its long history of corporate charity?).

An aerial shot of the Spirit of Detroit Plaza. | Photo via Twitter

Had we won Amazon, it’s almost a certainty that developers and the company would be cutting every corner possible to build HQ2. Entire neighborhoods would have been transformed virtually overnight, to awkward and sometimes disastrous results. To paraphrase a very smart friend of mine, it’s more sustainable for Detroit to continue to embrace organic growth.

In the larger picture, losing out on Amazon isn’t a loss. If we play our cards right, it might actually be a blessing in disguise.

Creative Commons photo via Wigwam Jones

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