Amazon is auditioning cities to host its second headquarters. “HQ2” will be equal in size to the online retailer’s current headquarters in Seattle’s South Lake Union (SLU) neighborhood, encompassing 8.1 million square feet and employing up to 50,000 people. Amazon’s list of requirements for HQ2 includes 100 acres of development-ready land that “foster[s] a sense of place” and is “pedestrian-friendly.” It needs to be in a city of 1 million-plus, be located no more than 45 minutes from an international airport, have access to mass transit and must be able to draw from “a highly educated labor pool.” As you might expect, Las Vegas answered Amazon’s request for proposals (through the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, who filed it on the city’s behalf). North Las Vegas threw its hand in as well.
Before we get too excited, let’s acknowledge that Amazon won’t choose Vegas or NLV. The reasons why we’re not a viable contender are easy to understand, and I don’t want to dwell on them just now. Rather, I want to tell you about Seattle.
I started work at The Seattle Times in 2002, when it was one of the few major employers located in South Lake Union. The neighborhood was half-asleep back then, moss-covered and populated by tweakers and prostitutes. (I kinda loved it.) But the city had begun to reclaim South Lake Union with the idea of shaping it into a biotech hub. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen invested heavily in new office and residential space, and a streetcar line was built to connect the neighborhood to downtown proper.
The biotech business never quite materialized in full, but Amazon did. The company found the key that Allen and the city had left and let themselves into South Lake Union, taking over all the available office space and building more. Not long after I left the Seattle Times, its owners sold the paper’s then 80-year-old headquarters to a condo developer, and that was that. The next time I met a friend at a restaurant in the neighborhood, I waded through a sea of Amazon badges, and an acquaintance who worked for the company, unaware that we were in a public establishment, asked me how I’d gotten in the door. The Amazon clubhouse was open.
Seattle’s love/hate relationship with Amazon has always been there, but lately the volume has been turned up. Amazon’s growth has sent housing prices ridiculously skyward (though some of that can be attributed to the city’s zoning codes, which make it costly and difficult to build high-rises) and has almost completely swamped the city’s once-idiosyncratic character. Longtime—in some cases, lifetime—residents of the city now tell me they want out. Amazon pushed Seattle too far, too fast—and that’s why the company is looking to place its HQ2 in another city. Amazon’s executives probably don’t relish the idea of commuting by air, but Seattle forced their hand.
Las Vegas wouldn’t balk at a giant local employer doubling in size. It would simply raze a neighborhood or two and leave the key under the mat. But we’re not ready for Amazon. In making a guess where Amazon would land, The New York Times eliminated Vegas in the first round: “Areas where job growth is strong.” Ouch. But even if Resorts World were hiring right now, we wouldn’t have cleared obstacle two: a large tech labor pool. The other obstacles—our lack of mass transit and “pedestrian-friendly” neighborhoods, and an overburdened airport—are purely superfluous. We’re just not there.
We need to have this discussion now, however, because the eventual arrival of an Amazon-sized, non-gaming employer is inevitable. The state wants it; the county wants it; the cities want it. The question is, will we get ahead of the invasion? Will we fortify our schools, our infrastructure, our labor pool, our transit and our Valley’s innate character? Because I know this: A Las Vegas working at the top of its ability could not only take on these heavily-moneyed outsiders, but get a pile of cash out of them while making them feel like they belong here. Vegas’ clubhouse denies no one.