Amazon: Playing The Economic Development Lottery
Amazon’s recent announcement that it would be “accepting proposals” for a secondary headquarters has set off a predictable–and unfortunate– competition by cities all over the country.
“Pick me! Pick me!” Even Indianapolis and Fishers have teamed up for the hunt.
In the world of state and local economic development, Amazon is a whale. The possibility of 50,000 highly-paid jobs for professionals at a new $5 billion development is too tempting to pass up for any metro area with even the slimmest hope of courting one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world. Amazon’s unsubtle hint that tax incentives will play a big role in its decision helps ensure it will receive one of the biggest packages in history. Already, cities and states have rushed to announce their hope to entice Amazon with their distinct value proposition, and—in all likelihood—breathtaking handouts.
This begs important questions about the wisdom of state and local economic development strategies and their ability to remain focused on addressing the real challenges American communities face today.
Amazon’s shameless invitation to see who will offer the biggest bribe does indeed raise “important questions” about standard economic development practices–practices which assume a zero-sum competition to entice employers to relocate to the redevelopment officer’s city or state.
That competition is expensive for bidders, most of whom have no real prospect of securing the prize, and even more expensive for taxpayers of the eventual winner. As the Brookings article points out, Amazon undoubtedly narrowed its choices to two or three locations before it ever announced its search for a headquarters site.
Amazon’s faux competition will lure one otherwise enviable place into handing over a huge amount of its taxpayers’ money to a fabulously wealthy corporation for something that place could have gotten for free.
As anyone who has ever been involved in one of these efforts can attest, cities will waste significant staff time calculating and crafting proposals, time and effort that could have gone into solving other problems.
It is past time to revisit economic development policies that center on these expensive efforts to lure employer A from location B to location C. Instead, we need to take a hard look at the strengths and weaknesses of our local economy, and determine what measures would help us grow the employers who are already here.
What are the jobs that are open? Why aren’t they being filled? Are there “skill gaps” keeping jobless Hoosiers from filling them? If so, what can we do to provide unemployed workers with the necessary skills? Is the problem transportation–the inability of workers to get to the places they are needed? Can we improve public transportation to solve that problem?
In other words, what are the unmet needs of Hoosier employers and workers, and how can we meet those needs?
Political figures love to cut ribbons and announce that manufacturer A or retailer B is moving to town and hiring X number of employees. Those announcements rarely include enumerations of the costly enticements (bribes) that accompanied the decision to locate here: tax abatements, infrastructure improvements, training grants and the like.
Efforts to grow the industries and other enterprises that are already here would not only be more cost-effective, they would also be fairer. These are employers who are already part of our community, after all–already paying taxes, already hiring local residents. They may not be as glamorous as Amazon, but in the real-world scheme of things, they’re much more important.
Amazon may be a whale, but we don’t have to emulate Ahab.